Friday, March 28, 2008

Raid my kitchen, Top Chef!

My friend Patti is blogging Top Chef in a cool and interesting way - taking the presented challenges, and noting how she would present them to her "judges." That got me thinking...if I was living in the Chicago neighborhood the Chef'testants were savaging through, what I would I have to offer to the Block Party feast?

A look around my kitchen and pantry might surprise and delight some.

In the freezer:
1 whole beef tenderloin, fat and silver skin removed
2 lbs frozen cooked homemade beef/pork meatballs
1 lb raw shrimp
chicken - drumsticks, thighs, boned breasts and boneless, skinless breasts
juice concentrate
frozen vegetables: green beans, corn, peas and Italian Stir-fry medley
homemade chicken stock
puff pastry

In the fridge:
block of Parmesan cheese
fresh mozzarella
herbs: Italian parsley, tarragon, chives and a huge punch of basil
citrus: oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit
pint of heavy cream
vegetables: carrots, broccoli, baby spinach, peppers, English cucumber, leeks, scallions, radishes, mushrooms, butternut squash, beets
vinegar: balsamic, champagne, white, red wine and apple cider
fruit preserves
condiments: ketchup, mustard (3 kinds), mayo, soy sauce, hot sauce, chocolate syrup
wonton wrappers
active yeast

In the pantry:
baking supplies
dried fruit
Oil: vegetable, extra virgin olive oil, peanut, canola and sesame
sesame seeds
chocolate: chips, chunks, slabs (milk, dark and white)
canned/jarred products: chickpeas, anchovies, sardines, condensed soup, beans, salsa, fruit, tomatoes
pasta of all shapes and sizes
rice: brown, white, wild
peanut butter: crunchy and smooth
bread crumbs: Italian style and Panko
tomato sauce
dried beans and legumes
nuts: walmuts, pinenuts, almonds
chicken and beef stock

I'm pretty well stocked, and I think that because I cook with so many fresh ingredients, they'd probably all be taken in an instant.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's bread...that tastes like puddin'

I have an issue with textures, which is why I have never tried bread pudding until recently. Bread is for sandwiches or toast. Or, so I thought.

A trip to the buffet changed my mind. They had a slight menu change, and replaced my beloved banana cream dream with bread pudding. "Oh yuck" I thought, but took a spoonful to try anyways. Oh my goodness gracious!!! I waited 30 *mutter, mutter* some-odd years to try this stuff?! Why am I such a fool? The crust on top was nice and dense, and the insides were so creamy and full of vanilla flavoring, yet the whole dish was so rich, which made it so sinfully delicious.

When I started to talk to my Aunt J. about Easter dinner, I knew that bread pudding had to make it onto the menu. Lucky for me, she was down with it - - and I began the search for a bread pudding recipe that would awaken our taste buds out of a sleepy winter slumber.


1 jar of purchased caramel sauce
1/4 tsp kosher salt (table salt would make the dish way too salty)
8-9 slices potato sandwich bread, very lightly toasted, torn into large pieces
3 ripe bananas, mashed
4 large eggs
1 1/2 cups half and half
1/3 cup whole milk
2 1/2 tbsp sugar, divided
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds removed
2 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

To make 1 large bread pudding dessert: Spray one pyrex 8x8x2'' glass baking dish with a non-stick cooking spray, such as PAM. Pour enough caramel into the dish to coat the bottom. Arrange half of the torn bread into the baking dish. Spoon about 3 tbsp caramel sauce over bread. Spread mashed bananas over bread, then arrange second half of torn bread on top, fitting layers snugly. (Like a dessert lasagna!)

In a medium bowl, whisk together half and half, eggs, milk, salt, 1 1/2 tbsp sugar and vanilla until combined. Pour 3/4 of custard into baking dish, and let stand app. 30 minutes until the bread absorbs the prepared custard.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Pour any remaining custard onto bread mixture. Brush any exposed bread pieces with melted butter, and drizzle top with 2-3 tbsp caramel sauce. Sprinkle with remaining sugar. Bake bread pudding uncovered for 55-60 minutes, or until middle is set. Remove and let cool. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream and a final drizzle of caramel sauce.

To add a touch of whimsy, I also fried up a couple of plantains as a garnish - but next time I will just leave them out...bread pudding shouldn't be so fussy.

Additional preparations...

To make 8 individual portions: Butter eight 3/4-cup ramekins. Spoon 1 generous tablespoon caramel into each ramekin. Tear each bread slice into 6 squares, for 48 pieces total. Set 1 tbsp of mashed banana on each bread square. Arrange 6 banana-topped bread squares standing on edge, side by side in each prepared ramekin, fitting snugly.

In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, half and half, milk, 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar, vanilla and salt until combined. Pour enough custard into each ramekin to reach top. Let stand until bread absorbs some of custard, about 30 minutes. Reserve any remaining custard. Meanwhile, position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 400°F. Pour remaining custard into ramekins. Brush exposed bread pieces with melted butter, and drizzle with caramel sauce. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar. Set ramekins in large roasting pan. Pour enough hot water into pan to come halfway up sides of ramekins. Bake puddings until set and knife inserted into custard comes out clean, about 45 minutes. Remove from pan; cool.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Chickpea Cakes

Chickpeas are just about my favorite food. I've played around with chickpeas before on this blog with some pretty fantastic results - but this recipe takes the "cake"...uh...literally. Think crab cakes, minus the crab and made with chickpeas instead!

CHICKPEA CAKES with a Blood Orange Sauce

For cakes:
2 cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 small garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 cup fresh basil, roughly chopped
1/4 cup chopped scallions
2 eggs
3 tbsp flour
1 tsp curry powder
4 swipes of whole nutmeg on a microplane grater
2 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper, to taste

For sauce:
1/4 cup blood orange juice
2 tbsp grated blood orange zest
1/2 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1/4 cup orange marmalade
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tbsp butter
Orange sections (optional)
Cherry tomatoes (optional)

Fill a food processor with chickpeas, garlic, basil, scallions, eggs, flour, curry, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Pulse to combine. (I left mine chunky for added texture.)

Heat oil in a large frying pan until hot. Scoop out chickpea mixture into large baseball sized rounds, and place in pan. With a spatula dipped in water to prevent sticking, gently flatten each chickpea round slightly. Fry for approximately 4-5 minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan bring together juice, zest, stock and orange marmalade to a boil. Reduce to about 1/2 cup. Season with salt and pepper and add butter to give the sauce a glistening look.

Arrange chickpea cakes on a plate and garnish with halved cherry tomatoes and blood orange sections. Drizzle orange sauce over the top. If desired, juilenne a little extra basil on top.

I served ours with a couple of slices of roasted pork loin and additional blood orange sauce (I made a double batch of the sauce.) It really brought a touch of Spring to our evening! I was surprised at the texture and flavor that the chickpea cakes gave...the curry was definitely the dominant spice. If you don't like curry, then reduce / omit / replace it! The original recipe actually called for cilantro - but the basil looked so nice in the store that I couldn't pass it up...and I'm really glad I made that change. The basil leant a sweet scent to the entire dish without being bitter or overpowering. Super good!

I used this dish as a side, but they can easily be converted to cover all parts of the meal! These cakes would be fabulous as an appetizer if made smaller, and could also be breaded with Italian breadcrumbs or panko crumbs and fried as you would for risotto rice balls. The next time I make them I will surely put the front and center as the main part of the meal, along with a salad.
I'm sorry - it's pretty obvious that chickpeas in general excite the heck out of me!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Fennel and Sausage Strudel

Phyllo dough scares me. I've used it once or twice, with great results, but it doesn't matter, my mind still thinks what it wants. And, truth be told - once you have all of your ingredients ready to go, the use of phyllo is actually painless and easy.

Some time ago, I found a recipe for fennel and chorizo strudel in the Culinary Institute of America's Gourmet Meals in Minutes cookbook that I glanced at, saw phyllo, made a mental note and filed it away in the depths of my mind for months. (The picture is actually featured right on the cover!) This week I finally pulled out the phyllo sheets to defrost so I could make a variation of this recipe that intrigued me so - replacing the chorizo, which I do not like, with good old Italian Sausage.

FENNEL AND SAUSAGE STRUDEL (makes two six inch strudels - enough to feed 4 people)

8 sheets of prepared and thawed phyllo dough
1 stick of butter, divided
1 fennel bulb, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
6 oz. ground sweet Italian sausage
2 tbsp fresh tarragon
1 tbsp fresh chives
1 1/4 cup Italian bread crumbs, divided
1 egg
pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a large skillet, melt 2 tbsp butter. Saute sausage and onion until sausage is fully cooked. Add fennel and continue to cook until fennel is tender. Set aside and let cool until mixture is room temperature. Finely chop herbs. Add herbs, bread crumbs and egg to cooled mixture and stir to thoroughly combine. Season with pepper. (No need to add salt - the sausage is salty enough!)

The chives add such a nice flavor to the overall mixture. Save a little for some garnish at the end.

Prepare your workplace for the phyllo. Melt remaining butter, and dampen a clean kitchen towel. (Use the kitchen towel to cover the phyllo you are not using so that the dough does not dry out and become brittle while you are working.) Place one sheet of phyllo on a piece of parchment paper. Brush melted butter on phyllo, working away from you. Sprinkle a thin layer of bread crumbs on buttered phyllo, and repeat with remaining dough until you have 4 complete layers.

Spread 1/2 of sausage mixture on one end of the phyllo, and carefull roll up, tucking the ends under slightly and placing the strudel seam side down on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat all steps to create another strudel roll.

Brush strudels with remaining butter and dust another layer of bread crumbs on top to assist with browning and flavor. With a very sharp knife, score the top of the strudel rolls to make cutting the final product easier. Bake for 15 minutes or until lightly browned and flaky.

Although I served this for dinner, it would make an absolutely awesome appetizer if made into a thinner roll and cut into bite sized pieces. I loved the way the phyllo crisped up and became this buttery, flaky covering for the flavorful sausage interior. Be warned though - it is incredibly rich.

These strudels would also be incredible (and a little healthier) with ground chicken, or even a spinach mixture for all the vegetarians out there! I may even try the technique stuffed with spinach and artichoke dip for Easter, so that no one has to mess with broken tortilla chips!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St. Patty's Day!

While others are filling their blogs with Corned Beef and Cabbage recipes, I thought I would go the sweet route and tell/show you the cookies I made last night in celebration of this Irish holiday!


1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 stick butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp mint extract
bag of large marshmallows
chocolate frosting
Green spinkles, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, sift all dry ingredients - flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add milk, extracts and egg beating well to throughly combine. Turn mixer onto low and beat in dry ingredients a little at a time until all of the dry is incorporated into the wet. Use a 2 inch cookie scoop to drop dough onto a silpat lined cookie sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut each marshmallow in half. Place one half of a marshmallow onto the hot cookie, pressing gently, and return to oven for an additional 2 minutes. (Any longer and the marshmallow may fall off the cookie!) Remove from heat and let cook on a wire rack.

Once cooled, ice each cookie with the prepared chocolate frosting, completely covering the marshmallow center - making it a 'surprise'! Store in the refrigerator.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Cooking with Fruit: blueberries

This week I am cooking with fruit. Citrus is the obvious choice, of course - but I am trying to think a bit out of the box. Tonight's chicken recipe was inspired by a drink I had this past antioxidant martini. (As I explained to the liquor store clerk, alcohol may be bad for you - but the add-ins negate all of that, making it healthy. I'm pretty sure he already thought I was drunk.) Hang in there, the martini recipe will follow...


1 cup chicken stock
1/2 cup pomegranate juice, such as POM juice
1/2 cup blueberry preserves
salt and pepper, to taste
fresh blueberries
Chicken of your choice, cooked how you like it*

To make blueberry sauce, bring chicken stock, POM juice and blueberry preserves to a boil and reduce to about 1/4 cup. Add fresh blueberries and heat until warmed through. Spoon over chicken.

*I started my chicken on the stove top in an oven-safe skillet. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil and sear both sides. Finish chicken in a 375 degree oven for 20 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through and juices are clear. You can also bake, grill or pan fry boneless skinless chicken breasts, bone-in thighs or drumsticks - your imagination is a good thing!

I served the chicken with some roasted purple cauliflower (Nathan thought I dyed it myself!) and baby carrots. So colorful! And purple!

Everybody's had raspberry chicken...blueberry is a nice spin. And now, for the perfect liquid accompaniment:


For the blueberry puree: 1 cup blueberries, 1/4 cup water, 1/4 cup fine sugar all blended together.

For the drink: 1 oz Stoli blueberry vodka, 2 oz POM juice, 1 oz triple sec, 1/2 oz freshly squeezed orange juice, 1/2 oz prepared blueberry puree. Shake all ingredients with ice. Garnish with orange peel.

Now normally, I would post a picture...however, after one of these (...OK, OK - it was 3) picture taking was not a high priority. Tee-hee.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Move over McD's

I made the most outrageous hamburgers the other night! They were juicy, flavorful and huge. We don't eat many hamburgers at home since Nate tends to eat fast food at lunchtime, and I tend to stay away from ground beef as much as possible unless I get a craving for meatloaf. Hamburgers to us are mainly a summer party food that we enjoy at our family and friend's homes. However, being a little stir-crazy played havok on my meal planning this week! I want summer here and now!

In the hamburger meat: 85% lean ground beef, italian bread crumbs, an egg, salt and pepper, dried parsley, onion and garlic powder and a touch of paprika.

On the hamburger: Toasted hard roll, american cheese (not on mine), lettuce, tomato, red onion, brown mustard, ketchup and mayo.

On the side: my potato salad - which consists of potatoes, hard boiled egg, red bell peppers, carrots, english cucumber (skin on), dill pickles, salt and pepper, dried parsley, mayo, italian dressing and dijon mustard.

On our faces: A serious smile! I will never doubt my indoor hamburger-making abilities ever again.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Braised Pork

Slow cooking is definitely an art that I am growing more familiar with. I officially gave up trying to make anything taste good in my crock pot. That thing hates me, and turns everything into gourmet dog food. I've tried all the tricks of the trade (searing meat first, low and slow, adding vegetables last, upgrading to a better machine) but it seems as though I do not have the magic touch with crock pots, which happens to be fine with me. Personally, I never found fulfillment in coming home to a dinner already prepared...I need that 10-15 minutes of prep and chop time to get any aggression I may have out!

What I do enjoy is 'slow' cooking in the form of braising on the stove top in a nice big pot. We are late eaters (there is definitely not enough time in the day!) so I can still work all day then come home and have dinner ready at our regular time....I just start cooking a tad earlier than usual.


1 lb pork of your choice - I did boneless pork chops on accident...they were packaged to look like boneless short ribs and I was totally fooled!
5 large carrots, peeled and sliced into 1 inch pieces
1 large onion, quartered
1/2 lb baby red skinned potatoes, halved
2 cups sliced button mushrooms
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp fresh thyme
1 tbsp fresh oregano
1 tbsp fresh rosemary
2 cups red wine
beef stock
1 large can of pureed tomato
salt and pepper, to taste
2 tbsp sugar (optional)
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

Add olive oil to a large stock pot over medium-high heat. Season pork on both sides with salt and pepper. Sear pork on both sides until nicely browned. Add carrots, onion, potato and mushrooms to pot with meat. Add wine, tomato puree and enough stock until the liquids completely cover all of your vegetables. Add herbs and bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium and simmer for about an hour or until the meat is extremely tender and the liquid has reduced and thickened. Add balsamic vinegar, then taste for seasoning. (I added the sugar because the tomato puree I used wasn't as sweet as I wanted it to be.)

Serve alongside your favorite steamed rice.

I was pleasantly suprised that the carrots still had a little bite to them - which is good since mushy vegetables suck! The balsamic vinegar gave just a little bit of tang, which cut through the tomatoey gravy nicely. And, can we talk about the pork? It was fork tender and melt in your mouth good.

The recipe would rock with beef as well.