Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon and Red Peppers

I hope you aren’t one of those people who envisions the color yellow or orange when thinking of cheese.

kraft-mac-and-cheese 2If you are, I’m sure you have lots of company. How many of us were introduced to macaroni and cheese as a child in the form of Kraft’s infamous blue boxes and the orange cheese sauce? Heck, I enjoyed it then. My mom would add cut-up hot dogs, which probably made a huge difference in boosting the bland taste of that cheese. Then there’s baked cheddar Goldfish, another childhood staple (and a fairly good snack choice). At some point, the color orange became associated with enhanced flavor.

This upbringing was misleading! I was duly educated during a tour of the Cabot Cheese facility a few years ago. Cheese should be white, not yellow! Sure it can be a natural additive that gives cheese an orange hue. And OK, apparently it is added, or left out, to signal where the cheese was made. But in the case of Kraft macaroni and cheese, some people believe the dye his harmful. And when think about the main ingredients, isn’t it a little odd? When was the last time you saw yellow milk?

Now that I have finished my tirade, I am going to tell you about my adapted macaroni and cheese recipe, that happens to come out orange. Ha! It is naturally colored that way because I include the spice turmeric. Someone had recently reminded me about turmeric’s purported inflammation-relieving properties, which made me want to use it.
I adapted a recently published Cooking Light Chicken-Broccoli Mac and Cheese recipe that has turmeric on the ingredients list, but I left out the chicken and substituted red bell pepper for the broccoli. I also followed some of the methods in another recipe from Betty Crocker that had the same ingredients I wanted to use.
I had been looking for a recipe that uses bacon, because I had a little left in a package that was expiring. I never hear anyone else dealing with this. Am I the only one in the world who has trouble using up bacon?

Macaroni and Cheese with Bacon and Red Peppers
Adapted from Cooking Light and Betty Crocker

6 ounces uncooked pasta, such as macaroni (of course), shells, penne, or rigatoni (my favorite)DSC_8697
2-3 slices of bacon, to taste, roughly chopped
1 (about 6 ounces) red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 (about 1 ounce) green onions, sliced
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1 Tablespoon garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/4 Cups low-fat milk
, 1% ideal
1 Cup low sodium chicken stock,
OR 1 teaspoon of Better-Than-Bouillon Chicken Base dissolved in 1 Cup hot water
1/4 Cup all-purpose flour
about 1 1/4 Cups (5 ounces) sharp cheddar cheese, shredded; I used this amazing cheese
1/4 Cup panko
1 Tablespoon butter

With the two different recipes, there are two approaches: 1. cooking the bacon and vegetables and sauce in a pan and then transferring everything into a casserole dish to bake for awhile, and 2. cooking the bacon and vegetables and sauce in the same pan you will put in the oven to broil briefly. I chose 2. One less dish to wash!

In a medium saucepan, cook pasta according to package directions, leaving out the salt.

Prepare your vegetables of choice, chopping or slicing them down so they aren’t much bigger than your pasta of choice.

Cook bacon in a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat until browned. Remove the bacon from pan with a slotted spoon. Pour all but 1 1/2 teaspoons of the drippings out of the pan.

Such a tiny amount of bacon!

Such a sad, tiny amount of bacon!

Add peppers and green onions to the pan and sauté over medium heat for about 4 minutes.
Add in the garlic and cook 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle with turmeric; cook 30 seconds, stirring frequently.

Have your other ingredients measured and ready! Also, preheat oven to broil.
With a whisk, combine 3/4 teaspoon salt, milk, stock, and flour. Add mixture to pan and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Cook until thickened, about 2 minutes, and then turn off the heat.
Add pasta mixture and about half of the cheese and toss together.
Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Melt 1 Tablespoon of butter in a dish and combine with panko; sprinkle over pasta mixture. Top with bacon.

Looks like a party, doesn't it?

Looks like a party, doesn’t it?

Broil 2 minutes or until cheese melts and just begins to brown. Watch closely. It might not brown evenly. No worries. The imperfection means it is real food!

Enjoy your creamy and naturally cheesy macaroni and cheese!

Salmon Salad – Plated

Last year, I ordered a box from Hello Fresh so I could test out the recipe-kit home delivery service. These types of meal kits are now delivered by a growing number of companies, suggesting that the model appeals to a substantial number of people. Or perhaps it is a fad. It would be great if these were an answer to the question I often hear from my single, on-the-go friends: if I buy ingredients to cook at home for myself one night, what am I supposed to do with all the excess? I’m only one person! I’m not so sure these boxes are the perfect solution. My conclusion about Hello Fresh was that its meal options were good and the prices fair, but the ingredient ratios were off, the instructions incomplete, and the serving count questionable. I also wished that Hello Fresh could somehow consider the fact I have a more well-stocked pantry than most.

A friend of mine had high praised for Plated, another service aimed at simplifying home cooking. Taking advantage of a promotion, I decided to give this one a try as well. I selected a seafood choice for one of my meals, once again, since fish is expensive. I’m also trying to incorporate the recommended two servings of healthy fish per week. My second meal choice was a pulled barbecue chicken with a pico de gallo salsa.

To assess Plated, let’s start with the packaging. The box is lined with an insulated bag.
The meat and fish are stored in the bottom of the box, covered with frozen packs that are reusable.

I will add these to my growing collection of ice packs!

I will add these to my growing collection of ice packs!

Then there’s the produce, some of which is in its own packaging, and some of which I find in the larger bags labeled by recipes.
The fresh tomatoes didn’t fare too well with this; they were packaged near a heavy can of beans and ended up bruised.

I saw that these bags were labeled “Greenbags,” which sounded familiar to me but I couldn’t recall the features.
I got excited when I thought they might be biodegradable, but when I looked them up I didn’t see that in the description–they are meant to absorb the ethylene gas that can make produce ripen and rot too quickly. At least I can reuse them for other fruits and vegetables.

I wasn’t ready to cook the day the box arrived, but it was easy to transfer the individual packages to the refrigerator. The next day, I pulled out my ingredients and recipe card for Seared Salmon Salad with Tomato Sherry Vinaigrette.

Seared Salmon Salad with Tomato Sherry Vinaigrette
From Plated

1 medium tomato, seeded and minced
1 shallot, minced
1 lemon, juiced
1/2 bunch of chives, minced
1 Tablespoon honey
1/4 Cup sherry vinegar
3 Tablespoons of olive oil
, divided
1 Cup arugula
3 ounces frisée
3 ounces radicchio
1 small head butter lettuce
2 fillets wild Alaskan salmon
salt and black pepper

The first step on Plated’s card is “Prepare ingredients.” This is where it provides instructions such as “Rinse X. Rise and Mince X. Slice X.” I included some of those directions in my list of ingredients, like I usually do. Basically, the salad dressing is made first, and then most of that is tossed with the greens.
Right away, I made some disappointing observations. The shallot was fairly large, and the tomato was not. They were basically the same size. I made the executive decision to use 2/3 of the shallot, which was probably still more than necessary.

Seeding the tomato.

Seeding the tomato.

To make the dressing, combine tomato, shallot, chive, juice of one lemon, honey, and sherry vinegar.
You can see that the tomato is a little mushy.

You can see that the tomato is a little mushy.

Really, this is how the honey comes? Normal people don't have honey at home?

Really, this is how the honey comes? Normal people don’t have honey at home?

Gradually add 2 Tablespoons of olive oil, whisking to emulsify. Taste and add salt and pepper to season.

The next set of challenges involved the salad greens, which are to be combined in a large bowl. After everything is washed, the frisée is to be trimmed first to discard root (I didn’t seem much of a root), the radicchio needs its core removed and a thin slice, and the arugula can go in as is.
The instructions for the butter lettuce were “rinse and tear into bite-size pieces.” The problem: the head of butter lettuce was very, very sandy and gritty. That is not going to dissipate with a “rinse”–the only way to get rid of the grit is to slosh the separated leaves in a bowl of cold water, lift them out (leaving the dirt behind), and then rinse again in a colander/salad spinner. Unless you’re sure that people ordering this plate know about the persistent grit, I think it’s important to include cleaning tips like this.
In addition, this was a massive amount of salad. I started with one bowl, but had to switch to a larger bowl to accommodate it all. I still had trouble keeping everything contained during the next step, which is to pour in half of the dressing and toss to coat.

Bowl attempt # 1.

Bowl attempt # 1.

I'm pretty sure this is the LARGEST bowl I have.

I’m pretty sure this is the LARGEST bowl I have.

Time to prepare the salmon. The instructions say to rinse and pat dry with paper towels. I’ve never been a rinse-r of meats and fish, but since the salmon was sealed in some kind of liquid, I followed directions. The fillets were very soggy, so the drying step was key.

Season with salt and pepper.
Heat about 1 Tablespoon of olive or other vegetable oil in a pan over medium heat–something nonstick but heavy would be best. When hot, add salmon, flesh-side down, and cook until golden on the outside, 3-5 minutes. Repeat on the other side, careful not to overcook beyond medium-rare.
Arrange salad on two plates and place salmon on top. Spoon over some of the reserved dressing.

Do you see how much salad this is? The plates would have to be massive to hold all of the salad.

Do you see how much salad this is? The plates would have to be massive to hold all of the salad.

My husband joined me for dinner and suffered through some of the bitter elements of the salad. Perhaps this recipe wasn’t the best choice for us because of the salad; I could have done without the frisée myself, since I find its frizzy texture only appropriate in very select dishes, and I already knew the radicchio would be strong. Of course, I could have easily left those parts out. The salad dressing was tasty and paired well with the salmon, but it needed more tomato and could have had more honey or sugar to balance all the bitterness.

As you may have guessed, I reached a similar conclusion for Plated as I had for Hello Fresh: it may not produce the best results for newbie cooks, or those who tend to follow recipes word-for-word. It certainly doesn’t guarantee proper portions for the selected number of “plates,” which means that people aren’t cutting back as much on food waste as they might think. As long as you keep that in mind, you might enjoy the healthy, high-quality ingredients and the convenience of avoiding a trip to the grocery store.

Plated Rating (sample size of 1, on a scale of 1-5):
Packaging: 3
Ingredients (freshness): 3
Recipe accuracy (quantities, ratios): 2
Instructions: 2
Recipe uniqueness: 4
Accuracy of portion sizing: 1
Taste: 3

Scallion Pancakes with Ginger Dipping Sauce

There are some weeks when I hardly cook at all. Last week was one of those weeks. I figure that I generally cook at least three times a week, often four. This week I cooked once. The rest of the nights were dining out and leftovers. There were plenty of leftovers for lunches and snacks, thanks to the huge batch of meatballs that came out of Smitten Kitchen’s lamb meatballs recipe (which used up some pretty old feta cheese). Then Matt brought home the rest of the individual pastrami sandwich he ordered for lunch from Harold’s New York Deli. To get some perspective on the size of their portions, I once took a picture of a single slice of their cake next to a wine bottle, which matched it in length. Too bad I can’t find that photo.

It’s as though I’m still in that pre-vacation mode, careful to be realistic about how much time I’ll actually have to cook before the kitchen is abandoned for restaurants or food truck tasting events. As a result, I didn’t have a whole lot prepared when Mother’s Day crept up, and I had the assignment of appetizers for my family gathering.

With leftover scallions, ginger, shredded mozzarella and other italian cheeses from home, the provisions of my mom’s pantry, and a dozen and a half button mushrooms, Matt and I cranked out two crowd-pleasing hot apps with little to no shopping, and minimal labor!

DSC_8555I did a variation on this stuffed mushroom recipe. I will admit that hollowing out the mushrooms is a bit labor-intensive.
This is an accomplishment for me, considering that I generally bite off way more than I can chew when it comes to recipes for entertaining. In addition, the first recipe I ever tried (and still use) for scallion pancakes is much more challenging, and has added steps. The most difficult part of making scallion pancakes is getting the scallions distributed throughout the dough, and not having them squeeze out everywhere and make a mess. The other recipe I use, an older one from Cooking Light, adds slippery sautéed mushrooms to the mix; those little suckers don’t like to stay in the dough.

But for a simple Sunday afternoon appetizer, a simplified recipe is the winner. You get most of your flavor from the dipping sauce, and it is much less messy to make.

Scallion Pancakes with Ginger Dipping Sauce
from Ming Tsai via The Food Network
Makes at least 24 slices of pancake for dipping

2 Cups all-purpose flour
1 Cup boiling water
1/2 Cup scallions
, sliced
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1/2 Cup canola oil

Salt and black pepper

Ginger Dipping Sauce (makes more than you need for 1 recipe of pancakes):
1/4 Cup soy sauce
1/4 Cup vinegar
, preferably Chinese rice vinegar, but don’t worry about substituting other light vinegars you have
1/4 Cup scallions, sliced
1 teaspoon ginger, minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon sugar

First, prepare the dough, which needs to rest for 30 minutes once made.
Sift flour into a bowl or a food processor. Pour the boiling water in at a steady stream while mixing, either with a wooden spoon or spatula or in a food processor. Add water until a ball is formed. After starting to mix with a spoon, we switched to mixing by hand to get the dough into a ball.
Let dough relax for at least 30 minutes, under a damp towel, while you slice and dice.
Prepare the dipping sauce. My substitution for Chinese rice vinegar was half seasoned rice vinegar and half regular white vinegar.

Prepare a lightly floured surface and roll out the dough into a thin rectangle. Brush to the edge with sesame oil.
Sprinkle evenly with scallions. Leave a little bit of room around the edges. Season with salt and pepper.
Roll from the long side like a sponge cake. Cut with a knife into 4 pieces.
(I should have gotten more pictures of this next part, but I was distracted. Guests would be arriving soon, and my dear husband needed assistance.)

Take one of the four pieces and gently twist three times, like a Tootsie roll wrapper. As you are doing this, it should stretch the piece a bit lengthwise. Take that snake and make a spiral, like a lollipop.

This definitely doesn't look like a lollipop. Do what you can-it doesn't have to look good at this stage!

This definitely doesn’t look like a lollipop. Do what you can-it doesn’t have to look good at this stage!

Take a rolling pin to this circle and flatten into a 5 to 6 inch pancake. Repeat.
The pancakes are then basically fried in canola oil. If you have a larger nonstick pan, you can do more than one at a time. With a smaller pan, I fried one at a time, adding canola oil as I went. You need a good coating of canola oil in the pan to get a golden brown.
Cut into wedges (I prefer using kitchen shears) and serve immediately with dipping sauce. They will be gone before you know it!

Matzo Lasagna

Happy Easter! Happy Passover!

We returned from vacation just in time to enjoy the spring religious holiday celebrations. With my interfaith household, there is a little bit of everything. It is a delicious time of year. In spite of the absence of leavened bread, the Passover Seder meal is one of the most highly anticipated meals of the year in my husband’s family. Much of it centers around the famous beef brisket, which is paired with the hottest horseradish they can track down. If you’re curious, this year’s verdict was that Holy Schmitt’s had the best heat and flavor combination, and the Atomic blew everyone away, but wasn’t so flavorful otherwise.

It is no secret that one can create highly adequate substitutions for traditional dishes using matzo or matzo meal. (Egg, of course, produces magical effects even without yeast.) When my husband was young, he would come home from school almost every day during Passover and make matzo pizza. Story has it he was so proud of himself for this “invention.” God knows he can’t handle going more than a few days without his beloved pizza. I even got him this T-shirt for his birthday last year.
DSC_3999When we were in Paris, we passed over the bridge filled with “love locks“, and while we did not add our own, I thought this one at center might as well have been left by Matt.

When I was making matzo crunch/chocolate caramel matzo brittle for the Seder the other day, and some pieces were accidentally overlapping, Matt had the bright idea of matzo lasagna. A couple of days later, we decided to extend our vacation bonding time and cooked together with leftover matzo. We created two savory matzo lasagnas that incorporated cheeses and the remains of two different kind of pestos from the freezer.

This hardly deserves a written recipe, because you could throw whatever you want and whatever you have in the layers. Various sauces, vegetables, meat…even leftover brisket! Lasagna normally has a ricotta and egg mixture, but we didn’t have ricotta so we left that out. I found when searching Google for “matzo lasagna” that the top recipes use cottage cheese–didn’t have that either. I made one combined bowl of shredded mixed cheeses and split it between the two lasagnas. There are classier recipes out there. Needless to say, it’s hard to go wrong with melted cheese, sauce, and a carbohydrate vehicle.

Version 1:
Matzo Lasagna with Red Sauce and Basil Pesto

2.5 sheets matzo crackers, broken to fit your two-serving baking vessel
about 1.75 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
a little more than 1/2 ounce pecorino romano cheese, shredded
about 1/3 ounce parmesan cheese
about 1/2-3/4 Cup your favorite jarred marinara/tomato sauce
(ours is from Vincent’s Clam Bar)
about 1/4 Cup prepared basil pesto

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Start with a quick spritz of cooking spray at the bottom of your pan. Add a little tomato sauce.
Then spread some basil pesto on the pieces of matzo going on your first layer.

It is easier if you spread the pesto on the matzo before setting it in the pan, but this works too.

It is easier if you spread the pesto on the matzo before setting it in the pan, but this works too.

Sprinkle about 1/3 of your cheese mixture atop the pesto, and then pour a little tomato sauce on top of that. Repeat with at least two more layers, reserving cheese for the top layer.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake for at least 10 minute to bring up to temperature. Remove the foil layer and bake for about 5 minutes more. If you wish, turn the oven to broil for a quick two minutes to brown the cheese.
This is what it looks like WITHOUT extra baking/broiling time, which I recommend.

This is what it looks like WITHOUT extra baking/broiling time, which I recommend.

Version 2:
White Matzo Lasagna with Parsley Pesto

2.5 sheets matzo crackers, broken to fit your two-serving baking vessel
about 1.75 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
a little more than 1/2 ounce pecorino romano cheese, shredded
about 1/3 ounce parmesan cheese

Béchamel sauce:
1 small shallot,
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon all-purpose flour, a little more will be needed if using skimmed milk
3/4 Cup milk, fuller fat is best
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, a little more if using skimmed milk
1/2 Cup low-sodium chicken broth
a few Tablespoons prepared pesto
(parsley almond in this case)
Kosher salt and cracked black pepper to taste

Prepare the sauce: heat a saucepan on medium-high and add the butter to melt. Cook shallots, stirring frequently, until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another minute. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring frequently and controlling the heat to prevent browning, about 1 minute.
Slowly whisk in the milk and chicken broth.
DSC_8385 Bring the mixture to a boil and continue whisking until the sauce has thickened and coats the back of a spoon, 10-20 minutes, depending on the type of milk you are using (add a little more flour if it isn’t thickening after 10 minutes).

Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in a Tablespoon or two of the prepared pesto. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as needed.

Spray the bottom of the pan with cooking spray. Spread a layer of pesto cream sauce.
Start your layering with some pesto-covered matzo.
DSC_8395Layer on the mixed shredded cheeses and more pesto cream sauce. Continue with these layers, finishing with shredded cheese on top.

Cover with aluminum foil and bake for about 20 minutes to heat through. Remove the foil layer and turn the oven on broil. Add pan back to oven to broil the cheese for 2-3 minutes.

Here’s a side by side peek at the delicious mush:

As they say in France, “bon appétit!”

Spice-Roasted Salmon with Green Beans and Rice

The whole spring-forward-daylight-savings-thing is a killer. In spite of the fact I tried to go to bed early last Saturday night, I was dragging every morning thereafter. My distaste was only slightly dampened by noticing sunlight later in the evenings. If only there was a way to experience the thrill of extra daylight without losing sleep. Can’t the clock switch from 4:00 to 5:00 pm on a Monday?

I really didn’t feel like cooking when I got home from the gym last Tuesday evening. I was tempted to make my dinner out of a mishmash of snacks and cheese; maybe I’d go as far as to open some boxed pasta or a can of beans. The fact that I had fresh fish in the refrigerator, waiting to be cooked, meant I needed to overcome these impulses.

I’m glad I sucked it up. It doesn’t take long to put together a fresh, complete weeknight meal like this, getting in my omega 3s and vitamins. Green beans and salmon cook quickly (especially with subjective measures of done-ness, so you can be even quicker if you want) and rice is hands off. I only had to chop 3 small things and measure a couple of others. Easy breezy!

The spice seasoning for the fish is garam masala. I have been making garam masala by toasting fresh whole spices at home, and one of the last times I made it, I made a pretty large batch.
While we’re on the topic of spices, I have a reason to mention my spice cabinet organization.
As you can imagine, it can be hard to keep track of a dozen little by-the-ounce plastic baggies of spices. Occasionally I relocate them to other empty spice containers, but they take less space in the bag. I found stackable plastic flat containers at the Container Store which have 6 shallow compartments. I can arrange several spices front to back in the compartments. Then I label the front with dry erase marker with each item in order. This way, I can see what I have with a quick glance, and I’m maximizing the space.

What’s my organizational scheme for the rest of the spices? Well, you know how it is with your own kitchen. I just have a feel for where to find certain ones, particular ones that are used together in the same recipes. This is one of the reasons it is so utterly challenging to cook in someone else’s kitchen, isn’t it? (At least, the majority of someones who don’t alphabetize their spices.)

Back to the cooking! A note on timing and temperature: the steps to this meal include boiling some basmati rice, blanching the green beans, sautéing the green beans, and pan-roasting the fish. My husband will tell you, I have a “thing” about my food being served at the proper temperature (and I pay close attention to this at restaurants). That usually takes the form of me wanting hot food to be served noticeably hot. You’re going to want to eat your salmon freshly cooked, so it should be the last thing you finish, obviously. I wanted to minimize dirty dishes, so, while the rice was cooking, I blanched the green beans and then sautéed them first in the same pan I planned to use for the salmon. While the salmon was finishing up later, I gave the beans a quick reheat in the emptied blanching pot.

Then everything got cold as I was taking pictures, of course. No one ever mentions that!

Spice-Roasted Salmon with Yogurt Sauce
For 2
Adapted from Cooking Light

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 sustainable salmon fillets, 6 ounces each
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt,
about 4 Tablespoons plain Greek yogurt, 2% preferred
1 Tablespoons green onions
, thinly sliced, plus extra to garnish rice
1/2 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1 lemon
, cut into wedges

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2 teaspoons oil to pan; swirl to coat.

Sprinkle fillets evenly with garam masala and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add fillets to pan, skin side down. Cook about 7 minutes; turn over, and cook 1-2 minutes or until desired degree of done-ness and temperature.
While the salmon is cooking, combine ingredients for the sauce. Whisk 2 1/2 teaspoons oil, 1/8 teaspoon salt, yogurt, green onions, and lime juice in a small bowl.

The original recipe called for a combination of creme fraiche or sour cream and yogurt for the sauce. I only had Greek yogurt, which is my go-to substitute for creme fraiche and sour cream anyway, so I used the yogurt alone. It still tasted great to me.

Dollop mixture onto fillets, when serving, along with lemon wedges on the side.

Indian-spiced Green Beans

From Martha Stewart Living

1 teaspoon kosher salt
, plus more for seasoning
1 pound string green beans, stem ends trimmed
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/2 large or 1 small yellow onion (about 4 ounces
), thinly sliced into rounds or half-moons
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced


Remember, you can keep your fresh ginger in the freezer to make it last so much longer!

Remember, you can keep your fresh ginger in the freezer to make it last so much longer!

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Fill a large bowl with ice and water. Once water is boiling, add 1 teaspoon salt and string beans.
Cook about 3 minutes (the beans should turn bright green), and drain into a colander. Transfer to ice bath and slosh the beans around. Drain again.

Set the large skillet over high heat, and add vegetable oil. When hot, add mustard seeds, and cook about 30 seconds, until seeds start to pop.
Add onion, and cook, stirring until they begin to brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Add ginger, and cook 1 minute more. Add reserved string beans, and cook, stirring until hot. Season with salt to taste.

Dinner is served! I realized later that my salmon was incorrectly placed here with the skin side up.

Dinner is served! I realized later that my salmon was incorrectly placed here with the skin side up.

Mmm, that's better.

Mmm, that’s better.

Meatless Manic Monday

Let’s talk about this relentless winter. Like a demanding toddler, this winter has been running around all over the country with its snow and ice, and if for one minute we seem to be forgetting about its power, it wallops us to get our attention. We have been at the mercy of frequent snow storms in the Northeast. Last week, I had not one but TWO snow days off from work. I am fortunate enough to be in a position where having a few days with the office closed doesn’t put me incredibly behind at work, nor threaten my vacation days. I’m not in danger of having a shorter summer, like the teachers, and I don’t have kids to scramble to find care for or to keep entertained myself. For me, these days can be viewed as wonderful gifts. I should be thrilled to have extra time to cook, or to take care of my task list, or take on creative projects.

The truth is, both of these days went by very quickly. The main feeling I had, by the end, was that I was cooped up in my house. I missed my routine, and felt a little lost having such open chunks of time. It is nice to have somewhere to go every day, even if you don’t necessarily love the place you’re going. I get the feeling that you all might be a little tired of these disruptions too? For some reason I wasn’t drawn to cook those days; in fact, I had a hard time pulling myself from the computer, which is dangerous because lengthy computer use can sometimes negatively affect one’s mood. I did use one of the days to leisurely prepare these chocolate hazelnut linzer heart cookies from Smitten Kitchen. It required me first to trudge around or through uncleared sidewalks and in the traffic lanes of slippery roads to the corner store for Nutella (why didn’t I have Nutella on hand? Good question.) It was worth it.

On Monday (another day with extra time because of the President’s Day holiday) I decided I wanted to prepare simple sandwiches for my husband and me. Hot paninis to be exact, because a cold sandwich never quite satisfies to the same level–my husband feels this quite strongly. A week or so earlier we had an awesome portobello mushroom panini out at dinner, so I picked up a few caps thinking I would give it a shot. It helped that, once again, we had a some of his delectable homemade bread on hand.

Grilled Portobello, Pesto, and Roasted Red Pepper Panini
Inspired by La Bottega restaurant and A Hint of Honey

2 portobello mushroom caps, stemmed and gills scraped off
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices hearty bread
, wheat or multigrain
2 slices of cheese – provolone, cheddar, swiss, havarti, or whatever you have
1/4 Cup basil pesto
2 slices roasted red pepper
, patted to dry slightly

This sandwich was great for using what I had hanging around, including some of a Costco-sized sliced cheese assortment.

This sandwich was great for using what I had hanging around, including some of a Costco-sized sliced cheese assortment.

Heat your grill pan. You might have a stovetop grill pan that works, or like us, a Cuisinart “Griddler” which is ideal for paninis.
A grapefruit spoon works great for de-gilling.

A grapefruit spoon works great for de-gilling.

Brush both sides of portobello caps with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place mushrooms on grill and cook on medium for several minutes on each side, until soft.
De-gilled mushroom caps on the Griddler.

De-gilled mushroom caps on the Griddler.

Top mushrooms with cheese so that it melts while the mushrooms are still over heat. Set aside on plate, temporarily.
Meanwhile, spread about 1 Tablespoon of pesto on each slice of bread.
Layer sandwiches grilled portobello, cheese, and roasted red pepper. Return to the grill/Griddler/panini press to further melt the cheese and toast the bread. You may want to brush a little olive oil on the surface of the bread.
You might notice that these photos look a little below par--I was so lazy that I didn't even get out my SLR camera, so I only used my iPhone.

You might notice that these photos look a little below par–I was SO lazy that I didn’t even get out my SLR camera, so these were taken on the iPhone.

Remember my urge to preserve? We are enjoying this same basil pesto from the summer! I could have made and jarred my own red bell peppers too. Now, in the middle of winter, we can enjoy a taste of summer flavors. We’ll just keep the shades closed so we aren’t so keenly aware of the mess outside.

Bacon Optional

I’ve been doing OK lately at cooking and documenting healthy recipes. It’s true, two of my featured recipes in January came from Cooking Light. Then we hit Super Bowl weekend.

Along with Super Bowl weekend came the inspiration for a party menu theme: “wrapped or stuffed.” “Wrapped or stuffed” certainly leaves open the opportunity to use fruits and vegetables and grains, but one is much more likely to please certain crowds by using cheese and bread and…bacon. One of the dishes I served was cream cheese stuffed jalapenos with bacon topping (optional).
These jalapenos were spicy, and a bit of work to clean out, so I ended up having a handful of extra ingredients this week. Somehow I came across a recipe for jalapeno corn fritters (yes, more fritters!) that could be made entirely with ingredients I had on hand. I don’t even remember what search terms I was using, or whether this was Pinterest, but I’d say I struck gold.

Jalapeno Popper Corn Fritters
From Closet Cooking

1.5-2 Cups corn kernels, frozen is fine
1/2 Cup flour
1 egg
scant 1/2 Cup cheddar cheese
, grated
1/4 Cup cream cheese, room temperature
2 jalapeno peppers (to taste, and depending on size), diced
2 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled (optional)
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon coriander seed
, toasted and ground
2 green onions, sliced
1 handful cilantro, chopped
zest and juice of 1 lime
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil, as needed

Begin by toasting coriander seeds and then grinding in a spice grinder, clean coffee grinder, or with mortar and pestle.
Prepare vegetables.

Yes, those are gloves! I recommend them for using with hot peppers.

Yes, those are gloves! I recommend avoiding direct skin contact with hot peppers.

Mix all of the ingredients (corn, flour, egg, cheddar cheese, cream cheese, jalapenos, bacon-if using, paprika, coriander, green onion, cilantro and lime juice) in a bowl.
Heat a little oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat. Form mixture into patties, about 1/4 Cup each. Cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2-4 minutes per side.
You could serve these with a creamy, buttermilk-based dressing, or consume them as is, like me. The recipe author even used a jalapeno popper flavored dressing.
These didn't even make it to the table before being consumed by my husband and me!

These didn’t even make it to the table before being consumed by my husband and me!

To add to the gorging, I also had some free bags of regular potato chips lying around and was thus inspired to make a potato chip cookie recipe I found on Smitten Kitchen. It may be the copious amount of butter, but they were extremely delicious. Now that the week is over, I’ll be cutting back on the cheese, butter, and bacon…I swear.

Orzo Cucumber Salad

Let’s talk about a basic salad. One that has the very basic formula of vegetable+grain+lemon juice+olive oil+cheese. Are you with me? I worry that you may be bored with something so simple, something I’m confident you have figured out on your own.

Yet I feel the urge to plug for the very basic salad recipe. There’s something so refreshing about the ability to bring together a satisfying and healthy dish that goes only a few steps beyond bagged salad greens and bottled dressing, something I used to use to fill in the blanks of meals and snacks here and there. I much prefer something like this, don’t you?

Take note: this is another recipe with less than 10 ingredients!

Orzo Cucumber Salad
Version inspired by Real Simple Magazine

3-4 ounces cucumber, chopped
~2 ounces another vegetable, like green pepper, chopped
2 ounces Feta/approx. 1/2 Cup, crumbled
3 small scallions, thinly sliced
1.5 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1.5 Tablespoons olive oil
kosher salt and black pepper

Consider that there are unlimited options for variation here. This other recipe I was considering used sun-dried tomato and red onion. Shallots would work. And if you are fresh out of fresh lemons, champagne or white wine vinegar make sense.

If you're wondering what I am doing with the rest of that sizable green pepper, it is going into this weekend's Super Bowl chili.

If you’re wondering what I am doing with the rest of that sizable green pepper, it is going into this weekend’s Super Bowl chili.

Cook the orzo according to the package directions. Drain; run under cold water to cool and shake well to remove excess water.

Prepare vegetables:
Aside: as you know, I made a resolution to take prompter action on my task list. One such task was to have the kitchen knives professional sharpened, something we never had done. We have a honing device, like this:
which you’re supposed to use often, and an old electric sharpener kinda like this that never provided satisfactory results. In my singular experience, it is surprisingly easy to find a traveling knife sharpener who picks up the phone, makes an appointment to come to your house at your convenience, and then accepts payment on a per knife basis. Easy peasy.

I have noticed a huge improvement in some cases. For some reason, scallions had been giving me trouble with the duller chef’s knife, and is where I felt a serious difference and ease in making thin slices.

In a medium bowl, toss the orzo with the cucumber, Feta, scallions, green pepper, lemon juice, oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon pepper.

Mmm feta. Can't I just eat this?

Mmm feta and lemon juice. Can’t I just eat this?

Enjoy cold or at room temperature.

Just the right spice, just the right heat: Chai Rum Hot Toddy

Hey mid-Atlantic and Northeast friends! It’s pretty cold isn’t it? Dang.

I’m not usually one to let weather affect me, or my plans. Of course this isn’t necessarily a good thing; there have been times I have been in slightly dangerous situations, and times when I have been quite physically uncomfortable. But a little rain? I’m still going to trek through Manhattan to try some diner I heard of, or walk the streets of Nashville in December with no umbrella. Snow is making it challenging to drive? I will walk to Trader Joe’s for groceries. I will say that I’m not nearly as hard-core as my dad, who went skiing the other day in -10 degrees Fahrenheit BEFORE windchill.

Along with variations on food, I can be tempted by an interesting cocktail when I dine out. Recently, at a fairly upscale restaurant (Red Rooster Harlem) I paid $15 for a variation on a hot toddy that I actually could barely palate. It had some kind of spice that made me cough, along with all three of my dinner companions (of course I made them try it). Based on my experience, I can’t really recommend this place in general, but the only perspective I have is from arriving promptly when the restaurant opened for dinner without a reservation on a Saturday night.

Guess what? I have all the ingredients to make my own variation on warm winter cocktail at home.

I incorporated not one but TWO homemade holiday gifts I had received: a spiced rum, and a chai tea concentrate. I realize that this means you’d have hard time replicating it, but I will include a suggestion that uses your own ingredients as a shortcut.

Chai Rum Toddy
Name and ratios suggested by Imbibe
To make 2:
16 ounces of water, boiled in a tea kettle
2 bags of black tea, or English Breakfast
3 ounces of spiced rum, whatever brand you prefer, divided
2 heaping teaspoons of chai tea concentrate, divided

Pour hot water into a vessel to steep the 2 tea bags for 4 minutes.
Pour tea into two serving glasses.

We have a ton of different types of drinking glasses, but darn, we don't have an authentic glass mug for hot toddies!

We have a ton of different types of drinking glasses, but darn, we don’t have an authentic glass mug for hot toddies!

If you're feeling fancy, add some kind of garnish (cinnamon stick, piece of orange or lemon rind, star anise pod). It will make a better picture :)

If you’re feeling fancy, add some kind of garnish (cinnamon stick, piece of orange or lemon rind, star anise pod). It will make a better picture 🙂

Measure about 1.5 ounces of rum and pour into each glass. Add a spoonful of chai tea concentrate and stir until combined. Drink immediately and feel warm and fuzzy.

Suggested variation:
16 ounces of water, boiled in a tea kettle
2 bags of chai tea
3 ounces of spiced rum
, divided
2 heaping teaspoons of honey, divided
A splash of milk or cream, to taste

Bundle up out there!

Cop Out

I had a mini epiphany the other night, over a copper pan.
I was about to execute a simple chicken piccata recipe in the short period of time I had before leaving for choir rehearsal. It called for one of those shiny stainless steel pans that conduct heat very well (read: All-Clad, or in my case, Costco All-Clad knockoff), because you sear the meat and then boil liquid to make a sauce scraping up the brown bits. But the four chicken cutlets I had weren’t going to really fit in any of the sizes of Kirkland sauté pans. I had two choices: cook them in two batches in the proper style pan, or cook them in a large nonstick pan that wouldn’t brown the meat nicely. Actually, I had another choice. That beautiful, shiny, glamorous, high-quality copper pan, which we received as a wedding gift more than three years ago and have never used, is the perfect size for browning four chicken cutlets in a pan. So I did it.

I have complaints about certain other people, who refuse to make a decision or take action on a matter and resist discussion because they say they are behind on so many other important responsibilities that need addressing first. Yet I witness them succumb to so many other distractions. Then days, weeks, months go by. I can’t help but wonder how hard it would be to devote 30 minutes to the subject in question?

But I was acting like one of those people. I thought to myself, once I have a weekend night set aside for cooking a fancy glorious feast, perhaps involving lobster and scallops and truffle oil, then I will ceremoniously take the copper pan from its throne, and actually cook with it.

Right then and there, I decided that I want to change my outlook in the new year. I want to tackle my “tasks” and projects head-on. If I call these “goals,” what is a goal without a timeline? If it was for paid work, I would have a deadline, or at least try to set one for myself. At home, there are a handful of piles scattered about, having to do with projects that aren’t even necessarily that important, in the grand scheme of things, but they have been hanging over my head for a while; I’m talking well before the holiday season (so feel free to call me out when I use that excuse in public). At some point, I need to set aside 30 minutes for the project, or ditch it all together (ideally the materials can be donated rather than trashed).

There is the tray full of 200+ chopsticks I rescued from disposal and imagined that they would be perfect for something crafty. There is the manilla envelope messily stuffed with wedding cards we received, again, three years ago, which I hoped to re-read, sort through to preserve perhaps some of the most precious, and recycle the rest. There’s the junk mail I collected last May and June so that I could submit the information to and reduce the quantity we receive. And there is the small stack of books for recreational reading that I have barely dented. I can do better at managing these personal things. I could also change my approach to things like the copper pot, which I was “saving for a special occasion,” and remember that life is short–you never know exactly how short it is.

The year started out well. Matt and I were hanging out with some friends on New Year’s Day when the topic come up of our wine collection. Matt observed that there must be several wines we’ve had on hand for quite some time, including a 1995 Red Bordeaux blend, and we’re not sure when they are supposed to be consumed. So I decided to pull that wine out, to move it to the top of our queue of wines to drink. Then, I Googled the wine for its recommended drinking dates/years, and found it should be consumed through 2013. Only 1 day late! We opened it then and there and enjoyed it with friends over a game of cards.

Oh, and here’s the chicken picatta recipe, in case you’re interested. It’s one of those simple and delicious recipes that can usually be made with what you have on hand.

Chicken Piccata
Adapted from Cooking Light Magazine, which published it as a Turkey Piccata recipe

4 thin chicken breast halves (about 1 pound), either purchased as cutlets or from splitting whole breasts
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 Tablespoon olive oil
, divided
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/4 Cup shallots, chopped
1 Tablespoon garlic, sliced
3/4 Cup dry white wine
1/2 Cup unsalted chicken stock
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
2 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 Tablespoons capers
, drained
2 Tablespoons fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped, for garnish

Sprinkle cutlets with salt and pepper. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons oil and turn to coat pan.
Add 4 cutlets, brown and cook 2 minutes on each side or until done (instant read thermometer reads 165 degrees F). Remove cutlets from pan; keep warm.

Add 1 Tablespoon butter to pan to melt. Sauté shallots and garlic in pan for 1 minute. Increase heat, add wine, bring to a boil, and cook 2 minutes, scraping pan to loosen browned bits.

Use a whisk to thoroughly combine chicken stock and flour. Add stock mixture to pan, and return to a boil. Cook 5 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. Remove from heat; stir in remaining 1 Tablespoon butter, juice, and capers. Pour over cutlets. Garnish with parsley.


This is post-washing and returning to display. I think it still looks great, don't you?

Here’s the pan after it has been used and washed. I think it still looks great, don’t you?