Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hearty lentil soup perfect for a stormy night

I don’t know why I ever found soup intimidating.

I’ve only attempted a few pots on my own, but every time, I’m amazed by how easy it is to make soup, and how flavorful the end result turns out.

Friday’s gray, stormy conditions were perfect soup weather, so I decided to give lentil soup a go. I bought the kielbasa and lentils a few days ago — Winco’s bulk food bins are my new best friend, I think a pound of lentils cost me 70 cents — and put post-stuffing vegetables to good use. The choice in herbs was based solely on what’s in my spice cabinet at the moment.

This recipe resulted in a pretty hefty pot of soup (maybe 8 large servings), so some of the leftovers went into the freezer for a future stormy night.

Hearty Lentil Soup with Kielbasa
2 ½ cups dry lentils
10 cups chicken broth
14 oz. kielbasa, cut into slices
1 ½ cups chopped carrots
1 ½ cups chopped celery
2 medium white onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon Herbes de Provence
3 bay leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil

Heat olive oil in large pot over medium heat. Add garlic, onions, celery and carrots and sauté vegetables for roughly 5 minutes, or until they soften slightly. Add kielbasa and herbs to pot, stirring with vegetables for 2-3 minutes, and then add lentils, broth and bay leaves. Bring to boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until lentils are soft (in my case, this was roughly 30-40 minutes).

Thursday, November 26, 2009

I'm thankful for stuffing

Stuffing is my absolute favorite part of a Thanksgiving feast.

The turkey’s always great, especially with homemade gravy, and mashed potatoes are a given, but stuffing always seems to be that dish that really kicks up the texture and flavor factor.

For the past three years, my family has trusted me with bringing the stuffing, and I haven’t had a bad review yet. I was flattered when my younger sister Lydia — she’s kind of the picky eater of our family — requested I bring the same stuffing I made last year.

Of the many things I’m thankful for (don’t even get me started), at the moment I’m grateful my family liked the stuffing, but also saved me some to bring home.

Sourdough Stuffing with Sausage and Apples
12 cups 1/2 –to-1-inch sourdough bread cubes, crust removed (I bought two sourdough rounds and had just a little to spare)
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
3 cups chopped white onion
2 cups chopped celery
2 large Granny Smith (or other tart) apples, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
2-3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
Salt and pepper to taste

I prefer to cut the sourdough into cubes the day before, letting them get a little stale on cookie sheets set out on the counter.

Heat oven to 350 degrees and bake bread cubes for roughly 15 minutes, giving them time to dry out a little bit. When you take the bread out of the oven, bump the temperature up to 375 degrees.
While the bread is baking, cook sausage in large frying pan until light brown before adding onions and celery. Cook until onions and celery soften slightly, about 5-7 minutes. Stir in apples and cook for another 3-4 minutes before mixing in thyme and poultry seasoning and cooking for another minute or two.
Place baked bread crumbs in a large bowl and toss with sausage mix. Drizzle stuffing mix with chicken broth until you get desired results — two cups wasn’t quite enough for me, and I think three cups was enough to keep the top layer crisp while still retaining a good, moist consistency underneath.
Grease 9-by-13 glass casserole dish with butter and add stuffing mix. Cover it with aluminum foil and bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 20-25 minutes to crisp the top.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Why limit the birthday celebration to just one wonderful meal?

I know it's not quite Turkey Day, but here's what I'm thankful for right now: an awesome birthday.

I've spent past few days celebrating my birthday with some of my favorite people. A lot of that celebrating has involved delicious food.

First up was a wonderful dinner with my boyfriend Chris, who took me to Grange, a restaurant in Downtown Sacramento the two of us have been drooling over for months. The entire meal was heavenly, from the marinated olives with olive oil and goat cheese to the entrees -- I chose a New York steak served with potatoes and brussels sprouts, while Chris killed it with ordering in the form of a duck breast with sweet potatoes and plums.

My second celebratory feast was dinner with the family at Mas Cocina Mexicana, a sort of sister restaurant to one of my favorite Sacramento spots, Ernesto's. Any place that serves bean dip with its chips and salsa is OK by me, and these guys make a mean shrimp chimichanga.

I spent this past weekend in the Bay Area with some of my girlfriends, and gorged on gooey cheese at Matterhorn, a place I've wanted to try for years, ever since I spotted their "Fondue Festival" banner while cruising down Van Ness. Step into the Matterhorn and you'll feel like you've been transported to the Swiss Alps.

Lucy, Kimmy, Colleen and I opted for the "Oh La La" (a blend of French raclette and Camembert) and the "Highlander," a melty mess of cheddar, gruyere, and a "wee dramm" of whiskey. We all scarfed the fondue with help of bread, apples and sausage. Dessert, a dark-chocolate fondue served with marshmallows and fresh fruit, put us all in serious food coma.

I feel so lucky to have shared my birthday, and some seriously delicious meals, with such wonderful people.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kitchen shortcuts result in wonderful lasagna

I've recently discovered no-boil lasagna noodles.

True, there's nothing finer than a well-constructed, made-from-scratch meal. But shortcuts are OK by me.

And being a fan of cutting corners in the kitchen, especially on work nights, I am very happy with how my Quick & Dirty Lasagna turned out. I used some items already housed in the kitchen (noodles, a jar of marinara sauce, shredded mozzarella, Parmesan and mushrooms) and a couple I picked up at the store (Italian sausage and frozen spinach).

From prep to plate this lasagna took less than an hour, only resulted in a handful of dirty dishes, and tasted just as good as lunch the next day. Using an 8-by-8 glass baking dish, this recipe resulted in four hefty servings.

Quick & Dirty Lasagna

1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
six no-boil lasagna noodles
24 ounces marinara sauce
1 cup shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 10-ounce package frozen spinach, defrosted
6 ounces white or brown mushrooms, washed and sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Brown sausage in frying pan over medium heat, using large spoon or spatula to break into crumbles. Remove from heat and drain fat from pan.
Place defrosted spinach in colander, squeezing spinach to remove excess liquid.
Pour 1/4 cup sauce into baking dish. Begin layering remaining ingredients, starting with two lasagna noodles and continuing with spinach, Parmesan, mushrooms, sausage, mozzarella and marinara. Ingredients should be enough for two layers, topped with two final noodles, sauce and mozzarella.
Cover dish loosely with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil from dish and bake for additional 15-20 minutes, allowing cheese to brown.
Remove lasagna from oven and allow to sit for a few minutes before serving.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My kitchen could use some birthday presents

My birthday wish list is extremely Betty Crocker this year.

Not too sexy, but it’s true.

My family firmly believes in wish lists, so with lucky number 29 right around the corner, and Christmas not too far behind, I found myself drafting up something to send to my parents the other day. The majority of the ideas I came up with center around the kitchen, and cooking.

I already got a great roasting pan from my boyfriend — it’s been used once (see photo, above), and now I need to find space in an already-crammed kitchen for my newest piece of lovin’ for the oven. While I’m at it, perhaps I should find room for the following items, just in case:

Potato peeler
The broken one currently taking up precious space in the utensil drawer is a prime example of getting what I paid for.

9-by-13 baking dish
My Pyrex collection is pretty extensive, but somehow I don’t own what seems to be THE most common size of baking dish.

Storage set
Another Pyrex gimme-gimme, these glass dishes (with blue lids, no less) would be a classier, longer-lasting swap-out for some of the nasty Tupperware we’re using now.

I think I’d get a lot of use from “The Bon Appetit Cookbook: Fast Easy Fresh.” I’d also like “Jamie at Home: Cook Your Way to the Good Life” because I love the recipes in “The Naked Chef” and think Jamie Oliver is quite pukka, to poach one of his phrases.

Subscription to Food & Wine
Bon Appetit, I love you, but I feel it’s time to diversify my food porn. Just a little.

A couple items that didn’t make the birthday list, but that I might ask Santa for, include a Belgian waffle maker — pancakes don’t always cut it — and KitchenAid Stand Mixer pasta roller and cutter attachments, because I would love to try making my own pasta.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Roast chicken completes trio of fall food goals

I am trying to be more of a goal-driven cook.

Instead of going through the weeks shopping for and serving up the same handful of dishes — and this is way too easy to do — I’ve been setting seasonal goals in order to push my kitchen skills.

My fall challenges have included cooking a pot of beans, starting with the dried version instead of opening the can, and making chicken noodles soup from scratch. I was satisfied with the results of both self-imposed challenges.

I accomplished my third fall-food goal over the weekend, when I successfully roasted my very first chicken. I know, it’s been done a million times before, but I’m a one-trick pony who sticks to boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

Equipped with a brand-new roasting pan — a thoughtful early birthday present from my boyfriend, Chris — and some tips from some of my favorite cookbooks, I got to work making this bird my own, removing the neck and other treats from the chicken’s cavity, rinsing and drying it and then smearing the area between the skin and the breast meat with herb butter.

Roasting a chicken turned out being a challenge within a challenge because I am a very impatient cook. I hate waiting for dishes to become complete, and often create shortcuts — some successful, some not to great — to speed up the process. I had to chill a while the chicken spent more than an hour in the oven. But patience paid off, as the end result was moist and flavorful.

Making the herb butter was a fun way to use some of the thyme, rosemary and oregano I’m growing in the back yard, although next time I might use 4-6 tablespoons instead of a whole stick of butter, as it seemed a bit excessive given the size of my chicken.

A five-pound bird yielded enough meat for quite the filling dinner Sunday with enough leftovers to make a mean batch of chicken enchiladas.

What goals are you setting in the kitchen?

Roast Chicken with Herb Butter and Red Potatoes
Adapted from Bon Appetit
5-6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, plus additional sprigs
2 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, divided, plus additional sprigs
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano, plus additional sprigs
1 roasting chicken (most I saw at the store were in the four- to six-pound range)
2 pounds small/medium red potatoes, washed, dried, cut into quarters
Dash course salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Mix butter with a tablespoon each of chopped thyme, rosemary and oregano.
Rinse and pat dry chicken. Slide finger under skin of breast to loosen skin. Spread 4 tablespoons butter on breast meat. Place herb sprigs in cavity and tie legs together to hold shape. Place chicken on rack in roasting pan and spread remaining herb butter on skin (depends on how much butter you want on the bird).
Toss potato quarters in bowl with salt, olive oil and remaining tablespoon rosemary. Place potatoes in roasting pan with chicken, and place roasting pan in oven.
Bake roughly 80 minutes, or until chicken is golden and the thickest part of the thigh makes it to 180 degrees, and remove roasting pan from oven.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Peanut butter and chocolate — a match made in cookie heaven

I picked up a tub of devilishly addictive Mini Milk Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups from Trader Joe’s. They’re like a chocolate-chip sized version of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and they’re dangerous.

After a few days of helping myself to a handful of these chocolate-peanut-butter gems, I figured I’d try baking them into cookies, something between a peanut butter kiss — one of my all-time favorites — and a traditional chocolate-chip cookie.

The peanut butter cups aren’t as sturdy as chocolate chips, and turned into globs during the baking process. Even though they didn’t keep their initial form, the candies added an additional peanut-butter punch to the cookies.

Peanut Butter Cup Cookies
Adapted from a Now … You’re Cooking! peanut-butter kiss recipe
2 2/3 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups mini peanut butter cups

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix flour, salt and baking soda. Add butter and peanut butter and mix until smooth. Add sugars and beat until light and fluffy. Add eggs and vanilla and mix until smooth. Stir in peanut butter cups gently.
Make balls out of level tablespoons of dough. Place balls two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets, and bake for 10 minutes.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Pesto pasta a great post-work dinner

Work nights are a mixed bag.

It doesn’t necessarily depend on how my day went, but by the time I get home from work and plop my commuter mug in the kitchen sink, I’m either really excited to cook dinner or I’m shrinking away from the stove.

Tonight I ended up settling somewhere in the middle. With no errands to run and a kitchen full of odds and ends, I wasn’t necessarily pressed for time, and decided to whip something up that wouldn’t have me on my feet until bedtime. Don’t want some elaborate recipe to get between me and How I Met Your Mother!

The end result was Pesto Pasta with Shrimp and Parmesan, a dish that took only six ingredients and about 30 minutes from start to finish. I had all the ingredients at home — frozen shrimp (defrost these guys for a few minutes under cool running water), a jar of pesto and chicken broth (I use chicken bouillon in a pinch) are all kitchen staples for me.

Pesto Pasta with Shrimp and Parmesan
12-16 ounces cooked tail-off medium shrimp, defrosted
1 pound angel hair pasta
1/4 cup prepared pesto
3/4 cup chicken broth
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup grated Parmesan

Bring water to boil in medium pot and add pasta. Stir occasionally and cook until pasta is al dente (firm, not too mushy), about 8 minutes. Strain pasta.
While pasta is cooking, rinse shrimp with water and toss them in a large nonstick frying pan with the broth, pesto and pepper flakes. Stir over medium heat for 5-10 minutes, until shrimp are thoroughly heated.
Add cooked pasta to the pan with shrimp and sauce, tossing with the Parmesan until noodles are coated, and serve.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Scaring up some Halloween fun in the kitchen

Papa Murphy’s ain’t got nothing on me.

They think they’re so cute, selling a jack-o-lantern pizza.

My problem with this pizza — and this, I must point out, is my only problem with their pizza — is the lack of toppings. Sure, there’s a border of pepperoni, and a couple more to make this guy’s eyes, nose, and face. But two olives slices, one for each iris? Totally weak.

I celebrated Halloween with a jack-o-lantern pizza of my own, using slices of turkey pepperoni to cover the ol’ pumpkin’s face, as well as a hefty application of marinara sauce, shredded mozzarella and sliced mushrooms and olives. I dorked out and carved some mushrooms, olives and red bell pepper to create the eyes, nose and mouth.

The ingredients cost a few more dollars than Papa’s pie, which sells for $6.99 in our area, but I was much more pleased with my pizza.

Toasty sandwich is easy and cheesy

Between tackling a hefty grocery list and a do-or-die mission to find all the components for my Halloween costume (Cleopatra) I didn’t get home until after 8 Thursday night. Not wanting to spend much time in the kitchen, I opted for a tasty sandwich-and-soup combo.

Earlier that day Saveur Magazine posted a tempting Tweet about a grilled cheese sandwich featuring smoked gouda, bacon and apples (featured at the fun food blog, Gimme Some Oven).I’ve been wanting to make a Brie-L-T for a while, a BLT with some gooey brie to sweeten the deal, and I think my sandwich is a melding of these two ideas.

I threw two strips of turkey bacon — I prefer Butterball — into the frying pan, and I popped two slices of sourdough in the toaster. The crispy bacon went on the toasted slices, along with a few green apple slices and a healthy smear of brie. A few minutes of medium heat and the sandwich was ready to go.

The sandwich had a great diversity of flavors and texture, and tasted great when dipped in a bowl of Trader Joe’s Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Soup, which I like spiced up with a little bit of Cholula hot sauce.

Next time I make this sandwich, it’ll also get a little bit of whole-grain Dijon mustard, as the bread was a just a little dry (I’m not a fan of buttering bread when making grilled-cheese sandwiches).