Sunday, January 30, 2011

Learning to simmer down thanks to slow cooker

Slow cooking is an exercise in patience for yours truly.

I have, on numerous occasions, ended up with a runny sauce, crunchy pasta and casseroles with lukewarm centers because I am an impatient cook. I am so eager to reap the rewards of time spent in the kitchen that I don’t always spend enough time in front of the stove.

I’m learning to be patient thanks to my Crock-Pot. It’s nothing fancy, a gently used model my mom had stashed away in the garage, but it gets the job done. I’m getting better at plugging it in, filling the pot and leaving its contents to simmer for six to eight hours. I even trust the pot enough to leave it on overnight.

My slow cooker has a 3.5-quart capacity, which yields plenty of food for the two of us, which includes leftovers. There have been a couple times when I’ve scaled recipes back because they’re meant for bigger pots, but no disasters yet.

The following recipe comes from one of two slow-cooking books I picked up at the library the other day. The author’s original recipe called for a 4-quart pot, and I did scale things back slightly by using a smaller package of spinach. The original recipe called for ground beef, which we don’t really eat at home, and white converted rice, but I wanted to give brown converted rice a try instead. I also opted to omit the scallions and add minced onions and Italian seasoning. Next time I’ll probably also add a teaspoon of red pepper flakes for a little kick.

This is one of the speedier slow-cooker recipes I’ve come across. This dish would be just as easy to cook on the stove top in a quarter of the time, but where’s the working-on-my-patience fun in that?

Turkey with Spinach and Rice
Adapted from Slow & Easy by Natalie Haughton
1 pound ground turkey
1 package (10-ounce) frozen chopped spinach, thawed but not drained
2 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes with basil
2 garlic cloves, minced
¾ cup converted brown rice
1 teaspoon dried minced onions
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
Salt and pepper, to taste
Grated Parmesan, for garnish

Cook the ground turkey in a frying pan over medium-high heat until brown. Remove from heat and drain off any excess fat.

Place ground turkey, spinach, tomatoes, garlic, rice, onions and Italian seasoning in electric slow cooker. Give a quick stir to mix ingredients.

Cover and cook on the high-heat setting for two hours, until the rice is tender. Sprinkle cheese on top and serve.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mexico, delicious Mexico

I miss Mexico.

We got back earlier this week from a trip to the Yucatán Peninsula, where we spent nine glorious days exploring Playa del Carmen and the surrounding areas. We toured archaeological sites including Tulum and Chichen Itza, snorkeled among sea turtles, explored cenotes and soaked up plenty of sun while relaxing on the beach.

We also gorged on some delicious food and drinks.

On our first night in Playa del Carmen, our wonderful hosts Sev and Mitch took us to one of their neighborhood favorites, HC de Monterrey, for arrachera, Mexico’s tender, delicious take on flank steak. I liked it so much I ended up ordering arrachera a couple more times at different restaurants, but dinner that first night, served with a baked potato, lime, avocado, a grilled jalapeño and sour cream, was the best.

Other Playa favorites included pizza at Piola and some delicious shrimp tacos at Los Aguachiles. The cold Dos Equis Ambar was especially refreshing with my aguachidos tostadas (a shrimp tostada topped with onion, cucumber, cilantro and cabbage), shrimp popeye taco with creamed spinach, and shrimp taco al oro negro (with refried black beans).

We ate at the Turtle Bay Café in Akumal twice – lunch of arrachera quesadilla and chicken tortilla soup was great, as was breakfast a couple days later, when I devoured an omelet stuffed with shredded chicken, cheese and ranchero sauce. Heaven!

Other highlights included:

Piña coladas at a swing bar at Xpu Ha

A smoky chicken tamale at a café near the Cathedral of San Gervasio in Valladolid

I also enjoyed dorking around at Mega, a huge grocery store in Playa. While Sev took care of some shopping, Chris and I ran around the store, our cameras in hand, playing tourist.

The Squeeze Cheese actually comes from Wisconsin

Milk and eggs aren't refrigerated

The most hilarious name ever for toilet paper

Mega was the source for the only souvenirs I brought back from Mexico — queso jalapeño microwave popcorn, some creamy poblano soup mix and some tlalpeño, barbacoa and pibil bouillon cubes.

We spent the last couple days at the Hacienda Tres Rios Resort for the wedding of friends Doug and Shannan. This was my first experience at an all-inclusive resort, and the food was pretty good. The quickness with which they refilled our Tecates was even better. The all-inclusive dining plan might have made it a little too easy to order tequila all around at the reception.

It was pretty hard to get off the plane in foggy Sacramento, but the post-vacation withdrawal is well worth it for a wonderful time in Mexico.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Je t'aime Le Creuset

Out of all the wonderful gifts I received this holiday season, one of my favorites is a lovely Le Creuset Dutch oven.

This is some serious kitchen hardware. We’re talking about 7 ¼ quarts of enameled cast-iron wonder. The sky’s the limit as far as what I can cook in this ocean-colored beauty.

I’ve been scouring my cookbooks and the Internet for recipes, but before I get to braising all kinds of other delicious fun I thought I’d ease into it and get to know the Le Creuset by making a big hearty pot of soup.

Hearty Sausage and Kale Soup
14 ounce lean smoked turkey sausage, sliced
1 teaspoon olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch kale, washed, patted dry and cut into ribbons
9 cups low-sodium chicken broth
28 ounce can diced tomatoes, with juices
2 14.5-ounce cans white beans, rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon dried minced onion
1 teaspoon Creole seasoning
3 sprigs rosemary and 2 sprigs oregano, tied together with string
Salt and pepper, to taste

Cook sausage over medium heat in Dutch oven for a couple minutes, until hot. Remove from pot and place in bowl. Warm olive oil in pot and add garlic, cooking for a minute or two and stirring occasionally, until aromatic.
Add broth, tomatoes, Creole seasoning, minced onions, beans, rosemary and oregano. Cover and let cook for at least 30 minutes.
Stir in kale and sausage. Cover and cook for about 10 minutes, until kale is soft. Remove rosemary and oregano before serving soup.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

This non-traditional macaroni and cheese adds color to the holidays

My family doesn’t stick to tradition when it comes to Christmas dinner. We could do game hens one year, a big roast of some sort the next. I like it this way, especially with the memory of a turkey-and-all-the-fixings Thanksgiving feast in the not-so-distant past.

This year we decided to cook up a Mexican feast for Christmas Eve, and it gave me the perfect excuse to add my own twist to a recipe I’d been eyeballing in the December issue of Bon Appetit.

I wouldn’t normally consider eating macaroni and cheese with my chicken fajitas, but it worked. The poblano chiles give this mac and cheese a nice kick that went well with our tacos and burritos. Next time I’ll omit the cheddar and use all pepper jack for a little more heat.

Macaroni and Cheese with a Kick
Adapted from Bon Appetit
2 ½ cups dry macaroni, boiled until al dente and drained
1 tablespoon corn oil
2 whole fresh poblano chiles, plus one cup fresh chopped poblano chile
1 cup chopped red bell pepper
½ cup red onion, chopped
1 ½ cups frozen corn
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pint whipping cream
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 ½ cup shredded cheese (I used a blend of cheddar and pepper jack), divided
Salt and pepper to taste

Char whole chiles directly over gas flame or in a broiler until blackened on all sides. Transfer to a paper bag, seal, and let stand 15 minutes. Peel and seed chiles; puree in a food processor until smooth.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees (or bring the temperature down if you’ve already got the broiler on).

Heat oil in large saucepan over medium-high heat. At chopped chile, bell pepper, onion, garlic and oregano. Sautee until soft, four or five minutes. Add corn and stir for about a minute. Add cream and chile puree and bring to a boil. Stir in 1 cup of cheese and all macaroni. Pour it all into a 9-by-13 glass baking dish. Sprinkle with remaining ½ cup cheese, cover with foil and bake 20-25 minutes.