Wednesday, March 23, 2011

My Back and a Night of Basque

Remember my mention of Vertebrae.Fail? Well, just shortly after that, I went into Epic.Vertebrae.Fail. No need to go into details. Just suffice it to say that cooking was not an option.

If you cook on a regular basis, at one point or another, you get to the point where you’re sick of your own food. Or at least feeling like you’re just regurgitating the same recipes over and over (hmm… maybe not the best choice of words there). Well, after 3 weeks of take out, rotisserie chicken and rice, and Eggo’s, I can tell you that I was just DYING to get back in the kitchen.

I ended up having to cancel a scheduled monthly dinner with G & C, much to my frustration. Since they were available the following weekend, we decided to reschedule, and there was just no way on earth I wanted to miss that.

We did manage to pull off another stellar dinner. However, what we didn’t manage to do was take much in the way of photos. As a matter of fact, I have photos of very little of the dinner. ACK!

So you’ll just have to take my word when I tell you we had incredibly yummy fare, and I’ll share with you some of the recipes, along with the few photos I did get (some of them taken the following day with the leftovers).

Our theme for the evening was Basque cooking - something I was completely unfamiliar with. Carley had had it on a number of occasions. Once again, those Mediterranean type of flavors struck a chord with me.

Carley contributed a chicken dish nestled in a bed of spinach and topped with onions and roasted (?) peppers. So moist and delicious. There was also a potato ‘salad’ of sorts with crab (mmm….), and a cassoulet type of dish using chickpeas (ok, so I may have mentioned before that I’m not much into legumes, but these were really tasty - and I caught hell from Offspring 2 the next morning for not taking a larger portion as leftovers). But I could write sonnets about the olive bread she bought. The day after our dinner, I was kicking myself for not asking if I could keep a slice or two. Then I opened up the fridge and found she had left me about half a loaf! I’d like to say that I was generous and shared.

But you probably know better.

I wasn’t sure what my limit was going to be for standing and decided to make a number of small dishes that I could make ahead of time. That gave me two days to take it easy and put everything together a bit at a time. So if you’re looking for some make-ahead dishes, these are some good options.

The first item I put together was dessert (priorities, right?), and I wish I had a photo because it was pretty to look at once it was all dressed for the ball. It was a cake made with olive oil and semolina and then drizzled with a citrus/honey sauce and pistachios. And it was dressed with a side of Greek yogurt and strawberries. Good in theory. However, in converting the recipe from metric measurements, I don’t think I got everything quite right. It was dense as it should have been, but a bit on the dry side, and my sauce didn’t sink in like I wanted it to. I seem to have problems with glazes.

Anyway, next up was this very simple tomato salad….

Chorizo and Tomato Salad

3 tomatoes, cut into chunks (I used 2 Romas and an heirloom variety of some kind)
1 green onion, thinly sliced
About 4 Tbs good quality olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbs Sherry vinegar, divided
1 Chorizo sausage, casing removed and thinly sliced (make sure it’s more of a firm sausage, rather than the kind that kind of dissolves when you cook it)
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced

Add tomatoes and green onion to a bowl. Pour 2 Tbs olive oil and 1 Tbs vinegar over tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir and allow to sit.

Meanwhile, add remaining 2 Tbs olive oil to a skillet and heat over medium heat. Add chorizo and cook and stir until chorizo is browned. Add garlic to the skillet and stir just until garlic begins to take on color. Add remaining vinegar to the pan and remove from heat. Stir mixture, scraping up any bits from bottom of the pan. Pour over tomato mixture.

Another easy (super easy) make ahead dish were these stuffed piquillo peppers. You could really add so much to them and customize them however you want. I actually had some nice green olives I was going to add, but the next day I realized I had forgotten all about them. I included them in the recipe, anyway.

Stuffed Piquillos

1 jar roasted piquillo peppers
1 Tbs olive oil
¼ cup onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin
1 cup fire roasted tomatoes
½ cup chopped green olives (mine were Moroccan, I believe)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked rice
½ - 1 cup shredded Manchego cheese

Heat oven to 375º. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Lightly oil the bottom of a glass (square) baking dish.

Add onion to skillet and sauté just until translucent. Add garlic and cumin. Cook and stir until cumin is fragrant and garlic softens. Add tomato, olives, cooked rice and seasoning. Remove from heat and stir in half of the shredded cheese.


The next item on my little tapas lineup were these meatballs. The sauce reminded of me of one of my favorites (Romesco). And again, super simple.

Albóndigas en Salsa de Almendra
adapted from Williams-Sonoma

½ lb each ground pork and beef
2 slices bread, soaked in water and squeezed dry
¼ cup onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 Tbs Italian parsley, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tsp paprika
½ tsp cinnamon
Salt and pepper to taste

2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup slivered, blanched almonds
2 Tbs Italian parsley, roughly chopped
½ tsp paprika
¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of saffron

2 Tbs olive oil
½ cup onion, finely chopped
½ cup white wine
2/3 cup chicken stock

In a large bowl, combine the meat, soaked bread, onion, garlic, parsley, egg, paprika and cinnamon. Season to taste. Mix all ingredients until combined, but do not overmix, or the meatballs will be tough.

In a skillet, heat (medium heat) enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. Make ping-pong sized meatballs and place in skillet, giving them room in between so that they’re not crowded. Cook, turning the meatballs as they brown, until they’re cooked through. Remove to a paper towel lined plate. Pour out any remaining oil from pan.

In a mini chopper or mortar and pestle, add the 2 cloves garlic, almonds, parsley, paprika, pepper and saffron. Chop or crush until mixture is well combined and almonds are broken down into a paste.

In the skillet you cooked the meatballs, add additional olive oil and heat over medium. Add onions and sauté just until translucent. Pour in white wine and chicken stock, add meatballs, and then stir in the almond mixture. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Pour into serving dish and serve immediately.


This next dish I’d like to try out when our weather improves and it’s time to head outdoors and do some grilling.

Prawns with Garlic Chips and Preserved Lemons

1 lb large prawns, peeled and deveined
2 Tbs olive oil
½ tsp paprika
2 Tbs sliced garlic
2 tsp finely chopped preserved lemon
2 tsp finely chopped Italian parsley
Fleur de sel to finish

Heat a skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat and add olive oil. When the oil begins to smoke, add the prawns. Cook on one side for 2 minutes, then flip over and cook for another 2 minutes on the other side. Remove prawns to a serving dish. Add paprika and garlic to still hot oil and cook until garlic begins to brown. Remove from heat. Pour mixture over prawns, add lemon and parsley, and stir to combine. Finish with fleur de sel.


I had two more dishes, and of course, got no photos. I know it sounds like a lot for someone having a tough time standing for any given length of time, but each dish went together VERY fast, and I just kind of swept in, threw one together, and then camped out with a heating pad.

I made some no-frills roasted baby fingerling potatoes and served them with a garlic-saffron aioli. Very simple. And because you can just never have too many potatoes, I decided to throw in these Croquetas as well…

Apple and Shallot Croquetas

1/2 TB butter
2 1/2 tsp flour
1/2 c milk
salt & pepper

1 c leftover mashed potatoes
1 shallot, finely chopped
1/2 c dried apple, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 TB lemon juice

2 eggs, beaten
2 c panko breadcrumbs
1 Tbs dried parsley

vegetable oil for frying

Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Once melted, using a wooden spoon, blend the flour into the butter, stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes. Slowly pour in the milk, continuing to stir. Turn up the heat to medium and begin whisking vigorously until all of the lumps are removed and the sauce thickens. Let boil for 1 minute while stirring and remove from heat. Season with the salt and pepper to taste.

In a medium mixing bowl, combine the mashed potatoes, shallot, apple, cumin and lemon juice. Pour in béchamel mixture and stir until thoroughly combined.

In a skillet, add vegetable oil to about ½” depth. Heat over medium heat. Meanwhile, add 2 eggs to a bowl and beat thoroughly. In another bowl, add breadcrumbs and dried parsley.

Make small (about ping-pong ball size) balls from the potato mixture. Dip each in beaten egg and then roll in breadcrumbs. When oil is hot, add croquetas to the pan. Cook and turn as each side browns. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Yams... Yum.

Remember when I mentioned that while I’m pretty great at snagging grocery bargains, I’m not so terrific at planning far enough in advance to pull meat out of the freezer? Well, on those occasions when I’m halfway home and realize that I have yet to figure out what to cook for dinner, more often than not, I fall back on rotisserie chicken. The local chain near me actually does a pretty decent rotisserie chicken, and I usually use the purchase as an opportunity to make a batch of stock.

Anyway, it was just one of those nights when I was pressed for time, and so I grabbed a rotisserie chicken and then tried to decide what I wanted to DO with it. So I grabbed a bottle of Hawaiian teriyaki sauce, some edamame (which Offspring 2 loves) and then paused in front of the yams, which were a little on the, shall we say, puny side. Definitely not something I’d bake, but they did give me an idea.

So groceries in hand and plan at the ready, I headed home and set to work.

First up was the rice. This is a favorite way of mine to prepare it. Really simple, but it gives it a nice boost of flavor. I did, however, hold back ½ cup of the coconut milk and just added more stock.

Next, I poured a bit of the teriyaki sauce over the chicken and put it in a 300º oven just to keep it warm and allow the sauce to caramelize a bit. Then I moved on to the yams.

Spiced Coconut Yams

1 lb yams, peeled and cut into ¼” slices*
2 Tbs olive oil
½ tsp garam masala
½ tsp dried ground ginger (fresh would be good as well - about 1 Tbs)
½ tsp salt
½ cup unsweetened coconut milk

In a sauté pan (I used my cast iron skillet), heat the oil over medium heat. Add the yams and sauté until they are browned and almost cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add seasonings and continue to sauté another minute or so, allowing the seasonings to become fragrant. Pour in coconut milk and allow the liquid to come to a boil. Stir occasionally until most of the liquid evaporates. Serve immediately.

*(The yams I was using were pretty small, so I ended up with ‘coins’, but you can certainly use a regular sized yam and just cut it down the center and then cut into slices.)

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mom

There are really two versions of this dish. The first time I made it, wanting to impress my guest, I started a few days in advance, roasted a chicken, then used the carcass to make my own stock, then made my own crème fraîche. The result, while basically an amped up mac & cheese with chicken, was really pretty terrific. And it received such high scores that I immediately put it into a mental catalog of good dishes to serve to company.

The second time I made this, I used a rotisserie chicken from the store, but basically that was my only shortcut. I also changed the cheese to a more economical Gouda. It was still outstanding.

I guess what I’m trying to get to in a very roundabout way is that you shouldn’t let the steps involved deter you from making this dish. Buy an already cooked chicken. Use store-bought chicken stock. And if you can’t find crème fraîche, or don’t want to pay the astronomical amount of money that they usually charge for it (and making your own is SO simple and SO MUCH MORE economical, that I highly recommend going that route), you can always substitute sour cream.

I suppose if you’re doing a mental calculation of the number of calories per serving in this, then you could also substitute various low-fat products.

But then you’d have a different dish, wouldn’t you? J

Pasta and Chicken Gratin
Adapted from

1 fully cooked chicken, meat removed and diced
4 cups good quality chicken stock (or make your own)
1 stick (1/2 cup) + 2 Tbs unsalted butter (use wrappers to grease baking dish)
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 cup crème fraîche (8 oz) *recipe below
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 lb Gruyère, coarsely grated (3 cups), or substitute Gouda or another semi-soft cheese
1 cup Parmigiana-Reggiano, finely grated
1 lb penne rigate or other short tubular pasta (I prefer the ‘mini’ version)
3 cups bread crumbs torn from a sourdough baguette

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease an oblong baking dish (9 x 13” works well).

Heat butter (1 stick) in a 4-quart heavy pot over moderate heat until foam subsides, then add garlic and cook, whisking, 1 minute. Add flour and cook, whisking, 1 minute. Add milk and stock (4 cups) in a slow stream, whisking, then bring to a boil, whisking. Reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in crème fraîche, salt, pepper, cayenne, 2 cups Gruyère, and 1/2 cup Parmigiana-Reggiano.

While sauce simmers, cook pasta in a 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water, according to package directions, then drain in a colander. Return pasta to pot, then add chicken and sauce, tossing to coat.

Pour pasta mixture into baking dish.

Melt 2 Tbs butter and toss with bread crumbs and remaining cheeses, then sprinkle evenly over pasta mixture. Bake gratin until crumbs are golden brown and sauce is bubbling, 20 to 30 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Crème Fraîche

1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
½ cup buttermilk

Pour whipping cream into a non-reactive bowl, add buttermilk and stir. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature 12 to 24 hours, or until mixture thickens. Stir well and refrigerate until ready to use.

My mom loves coconut cream pie, so I thought it would be fun to make a slightly more upscale version for her big day. In this rendition, I used a coconut pastry cream and sandwiched it between two light and crispy coconut meringues, then topped it with whipped cream and toasted coconut. Really very simple, but it definitely elevates the original version a notch.

Coconut Pastry Cream

2 cups milk
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 Tbs flour
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Place both kinds of coconut in a food processor and pulse until the mixture becomes about the size of a course meal.

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, vanilla and flour until well combined.

Combine milk and coconut in a medium saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and stir occasionally, until mixture just starts to simmer.

Temper egg mixture by pouring about a cup of the milk mixture into it, whisking at the same time. Add the warmed egg mixture to the saucepan of milk and coconut. Whisk until pastry cream thickens and begins to bubble, about 5 minutes. It should be very thick at this point.

Remove from heat and whisk in butter until it’s melted. Stir every few minutes until it cools enough to place a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper over the surface (to keep it from forming a skin). Cool to room temperature and then move to fridge and store until needed.

Coconut Meringues

2 egg whites
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup finely shredded coconut
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 250°.

Add egg whites and cream of tartar to bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on high speed until soft peaks form. Turn speed down slightly and add sugar a tablespoon at a time until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks.

Turn off mixer and stir in coconut and vanilla.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. For each round, drop 2 heaping tablespoons onto the baking sheet and form into a circle, making sure they are of uniform height and width and spaced about one inch apart.

Bake about 1 hour, rotating sheet halfway through the baking, until they are dry in the middle. Remove to rack to cool.

Friday, March 4, 2011

One More Meatless Night

Ok, I’m not a fan of the Beatles, but after writing the title for this post, I just can’t get that song out of my head.

You know the one.

Think about it.

I’ll wait….

Anyway, while I normally get very vague responses to any of my inquiries about what I should cook for dinner, Offspring #2 was very adamant that she wanted polenta, and she wanted it NOW (NO idea where she gets her bossiness from). And I just could not for the life of me think of a meat course to go along with it that

a. sounded appetizing at the moment, and
b. I had enough motivation to cook.

So I decided to just go with the polenta, add a little tapenade and cook up some sprouts (yeah, those again).

This was not a VEGETARIAN meal, by the way. I did use chicken stock to cook the polenta. If that’s not how you roll, then by all means, use water or veggie broth. In my definition of a meatless meal, I just don’t count broth. Sue me.

Polenta is another one of those dishes that you can customize to your particular taste. Add roasted garlic, parsley, basil, sun-dried tomatoes, or anything else that suits your fancy. Also, the type of cheese you use can obviously change it dramatically. I topped mine with a little mascarpone, but try stirring some in for a creamier, more decadent version.

I had plans for the leftovers as well (also very versatile), but Offspring opted to take what was left in her school lunch today. That’s my girl. No pb & j for her. She’s got polenta.

Buon Appetito!


2 cups low-sodium chicken stock (or substitute water or vegetable stock)
1 cup water
½ tsp salt
1 cup polenta (or use a medium - course ground cornmeal)
2 Tbs butter
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
½ cup mozzarella or provolone, shredded
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large saucepan, bring chicken stock, water and salt to a boil. Using a whisk, slowly stir in polenta. Stir until mixture comes to a boil and begins to thicken (this will happen pretty fast). Lower heat to low and cover pan.

Cook about 5 minutes. Mixture should be thick but still creamy.

Remove the lid and stir in butter and cheeses. Season with pepper. Serve immediately.

Sun-dried tomato and Kalamata Tapenade

2 cloves garlic, smashed
½ cup pitted Kalamata olives
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes, packed in oil
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
2 Tbs fresh basil, roughly chopped

Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until well combined. If mixture is too thick, add a couple of tablespoons of hot water or a little more olive oil.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Making it ALLLL Better

Ever since my kids were little we had this deal. If you had to get a shot, you got a milkshake. They still hold me to that to this day, and they’re currently 21 and 17.

Yesterday I had a check-up with my new doctor. And after chatting a while, he determined that I was probably in need of a tetanus booster. Did I feel like I just hit the lottery? Not so much.

And not only did I NOT get my requisite milkshake, I barely even got a nod of sympathy. And so, given a complete void of empathy at home, I decided I’d need to take matters into my own hands.

But really, milkshakes just aren’t my thing. So instead, I thought I’d make one of my favorite cookies instead. I can’t even tell you why I like these so much. I don’t have any particular love of oatmeal. Or of plain ol’ oatmeal cookies, for that matter.

Maybe it’s the combination of chocolate with the touch of cinnamon, or the fact that the oatmeal gives them a really nice, soft texture and a bit of nuttiness.

Whatever it is, I’d take these over a milkshake any day.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 sticks unsalted butter, brought to room temperature
1 ½ cups packed brown sugar
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 ½ tsp vanilla
1 ¾ cups flour
¾ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
3 ½ cups oats (I used the ‘quick cook’ variety)
½ bag (about 1 cup) mini chocolate chips

Heat oven to 350º. Lightly grease a baking sheet (I just use the wrappers from the butter).

In a large bowl, cream together the butter and sugars. Add eggs and vanilla and mix until thoroughly combined. Add the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon and mix to combine. Add oats and mix thoroughly. Stir in the chocolate chips.

Drop tablespoon-sized portions onto baking sheet, spacing evenly apart.

Bake for 8 - 9 minutes, or until edges are golden. Remove from oven and let stand about 1 minute before removing from baking sheet. Allow to cool.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Thanksgiving Downsized

I tend to be an impulsive cook.  I might be sitting at my desk at work and all of a sudden inspiration will strike for that night’s dinner.  Or it could happen at the grocery store (usually as I’m cruising through the aisles of Mecca - or Market of Choice as THEY prefer to call it).  Sometimes it’s on the 25 minute drive home from work.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t tend to plan ahead all that much in regards to meals.  Which, if you’re a bargain shopper like me, can sometimes be counterproductive, especially in terms of frozen meat.  See where I’m going here?

The upside to being a hoarder having a well-stocked pantry is that I generally have almost everything on hand already when these little moments of inspiration hit.  A quick trip to the store to pick up produce to round things out might be in order, but most of the time I’m doing ok when it comes to having ingredients already on hand.  The trouble I run into time and time again is not having thawed MEAT at the ready.

So I determined to get better at planning ahead and thawing accordingly.  I’ve been toying with the idea of a Thanksgiving type of burger ever since I picked up a package of ground turkey.  Plus, I also had some of this still hanging around… also in the freezer.

To round out the whole ‘theme’ I baked some sweet potatoes to go along with these little sliders.  Even steamed a few green beans.

It was like Thanksgiving in mini form.

Thanksgiving Turkey Sliders

1 lb ground turkey
¼ cup onion, finely minced
1 tsp salt
½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 ½ Tbs olive oil
½ tsp dried sage

Slider Buns
Cranberry sauce
Lemon Garlic Aioli (recipe follows)
Crispy onions (thought they’d pair well with the green beans, which, alas, I got no photo of)

Break up ground turkey into a medium mixing bowl.  Add onion, salt, pepper, sage and olive oil.  Mix thoroughly with hands until just combined.  Form into small ‘slider’ sized patties.

Heat about 1 Tbs olive oil in a cast iron or non-stick frying pan over medium heat.  When the pan comes to temperature, place the sliders in, making sure not to crowd them.  Cook until golden on one side, about 4 minutes, flip over, and cook until done, about another 4 minutes.

Lemon Garlic Aioli

½ cup good quality mayonnaise (or make your own)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and Pepper to taste
2 - 4 drops Tabasco
Juice from ½ of a lemon

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl.  Stir until mixed thoroughly.