Archive | August, 2010

Birthday Shout-Out

17 Aug

I’m 40.


Today, I’m 40. How the hell did that happen?

I am not complaining by any stretch–my dear friend died this year at 37, so every year I get now feels like a bonus. I made it to 40! Yay me! DH took me to Central Michel Richard, which was wonderful and amazing and such fun! And my super sweet, , awesome group of close girlfriends threw me a wonderful surprise dinner last night, with delicious food and lots of wine (and a margarita–thanks Amy!) and a whole pile of amazing gifts that were perfect, just for me. I am still overwhelmed and feeling super blessed to be surrounded by such thoughtful, generous, heart-filling friends.

I’m giving myself a gift today. I’m cheating on you all. I mean, I’m not off sending recipes to my other blog buddies or anything, but I’m recycling an idea from an email exchange I had with a high school friend yesterday. She’s throwing a food-themed party for her daughter and asked if I had any ideas for desserts that might be fun and get the 10 year olds involved.

I thought about it and came up with an idea my friend said she liked (although maybe she was just being nice…I never know). It’s pasted below. I’m off to lunch downtown with my family, feeling very blessed. Even at 40.

The food party dessert idea:

Have you watched Chopped or Food Network Challenge or Iron Chef? You know how they get baskets with “mystery ingredients” that they have to use?

Give each girl a “mystery ingredient,” but make them different so they don’t all come back with the same thing. Somebody gets a banana, somebody gets peanut butter, somebody gets maraschino cherries, etc. Put them on teams of two or three if you have a lot, with each team having its own ingredient, but where each girl makes her own thing.

You start out with pre-mixed up brownie batter and some cupcake liners–the foil or silicone if you can get them. And then you have your “pantry” with other things–ice cream, whipped cream, crushed peppermint, crushed oreos, mini-marshmallows, M&Ms, etc. And it’s like Iron Chef. The girls each make a dessert that must use the mystery ingredient, in combination with anything else they want. So they could bake their ingredients into a brownie cupcake (which is what you’re making with the tins and the brownie batter) or they can bake a plain old brownie cupcake and top it, or crumble it into something, or whatever.

They can mix the brownies with whatever creations they want while the pizzas bake, and then you bake off the brownies while they eat, and then they come back to assemble their finished dessert at the end. Each girl talks about her dessert to the “judges” (you or the other girls) and then there are prizes, all that sort of thing.

Perfect Roast Chicken

16 Aug

There’s a reason rotisserie chicken has taken off in popularity in recent years: cooked right, it’s perhaps the ultimate comfort food. It reminds us of dinner at Grandma’s house with the whole family gathered around. The perfect roast chicken is a thing of beauty, and it’s among the dishes I crave when life gets a little rough around the edges.

Roasting a chicken sounds so simple that it’s surprising when the bird emerges from the oven either too dry or not cooked enough. Juicy meat and a crispy skin are the hallmarks of perfect roast chicken, and it can be tricky to achieve both of those things in a home oven.

I started making whole roast chicken about three years ago, when my kids started really enjoying grown-up food. They eat the legs and thighs and DH and I enjoy the wings and breasts, and for about $7 and the cost of some vegetables, our family eats for two nights. You can’t beat that.

I started out with a recipe from Michel Richard (**swoon**) that involved lemons and onion and had you start the chicken out in a 350 degree oven for an hour, take the bird out and crank the hot-box up 100 degrees, and finish it at the higher temperature, to give you that prized juicy/crispy combo. It was delicious, but a little more involved and time-consuming than I was looking for with two kids running around and a business to keep moving.

Then I tried a recipe from Ina Garten that whipped the time-consuming part and did produce the juicy/crispy thing, but didn’t have the same amazing flavor of Richard’s bird. So these days, I combine the two recipes, using Richard’s seasoning and ingredients with Garten’s oven technique. And voila–the perfect roast chicken (in my humble opinion, of course).

You’ll notice I don’t truss my bird, and I don’t see any reason to. The lemon will stay put in the cavity and hold everything else in there, and the wings won’t burn if you make sure they’re tucked underneath before the chicken goes into the oven. Why spend time with twine?

You also don’t need a roasting rack. I have one. It’s at the very tippy-top of my pantry, where I need a chair to get it down. I pull it out to make turkey at the holidays and that’s it. Laying your chicken directly on sliced onion and the vegetables of your choice (un-peeled garlic is amazing too) gives it tons of flavor and lifts it plenty high enough to be out of its own drippings. That’s a Michel Richard trick, and I swear by it.

A lesson I learned: We all love olive oil. I know. Me too. But you can’t substitute olive oil for butter in this recipe. I mean, you can, but it’s going to trash your oven. The oil will spatter and spit all over the place. If I don’t have time for a three-hour roast chicken, I absolutely don’t have time to be scrubbing out my oven afterwards. So stick with the butter this time around. And do that even if you’re not going to eat the chicken skin. It helps seal in the juices into the meat, and we want that very much.

The other key to this is to pull your chicken out of the oven and let it rest a good 20 minutes before you think about it any further. Don’t touch it. Ignore that bird! Let the juices settle in there before you go attacking it with a knife. It won’t get cold, I promise, and you’ll be rewarded with a much more delicious meal. You can tent it with foil while you wait if you want, but it’ll de-crisp the skin a bit.

This is a great meal to take to someone who’s had a baby or is facing an illness. Pair it with some honey-roasted sweet potatoes and a green salad, and you’ve got a comforting dinner that almost everyone will love. I don’t salt or pepper my bird, but feel free to do that if you want a traditional rotisserie taste to the skin.

To make my favorite roast chicken, you’ll need:

1 lemon, quartered

1 head of garlic, outer paper removed and cut in half width-wise (so the cloves are halved but the halves of the head stay intact)

1 large or 2 medium yellow onions, peeled and sliced thickly (leave the rings together)

3 or 4 sprigs of fresh thyme

2 tablespoons of butter, melted.

1 roasting chicken (whatever size your family will eat)

Pre-heat your oven to 425 degrees. Coat a 9 x 13 pan (I prefer a Pyrex dish) with cooking spray.

Line the dish with your onion slices. If you wish, add some baby carrots or potatoes to the onion.

Remove the neck and giblets from the cavity of your chicken. Rinse and pat it dry. Stuff the cavity with two quarters of the lemon, half the garlic, the thyme, and then the other half garlic and lemons.

Brush the melted butter all over the chicken, and lay it on the vegetables breast-side down, tucking the wing tips underneath. Move the whole dish to the oven and roast for 1 – 2 hours, until a thermometer inserted into the center of the thigh reads 165 degrees and the juices run clear.

Remove the chicken from the oven. Let it rest at least 20 minutes before you empty the cavity (discard the contents) and slice the bird for serving.


ps–You can do this in the Crockpot. Prepare the bird the same way with the butter and the veggies inside, and then lay it on top of the onions in your slow cooker. Let it go at least 8 hours. You won’t get the crispy brown skin and it’ll have a slightly different texture to the meat, but it’s still delicious. This is especially great if you want the meat for another recipe (enchiladas, soup, etc) because it’s particularly tender cooked this way.

Turkey Meatloaf a la Ina Garten

13 Aug

Everybody loves this recipe.

Even if you’re not a turkey lover, this recipe will delight you–I promise. It’s pretty simple to prepare, tastes absolutely divine, and is gobbled down by even the pickiest child.

This one started as a Barefoot Contessa recipe, and it’s pretty much still hers. Hers, though, kicks off with five pounds of turkey. And that’s an absolute boatload of meat–I can’t imagine going through that much food outside of a picnic or something (and you could absolutely serve this for a casual party–it’s delicious). I could halve it, but my grocery store only sells ground turkey by the pound or in three-pound packages. So three pounds it is.

Three pounds is still a ton of food. My family can easily eat this for three dinners. But this is also great cold on sandwiches and it freezes just perfectly, so I cut slices and wrap them individually and pop them into the icebox for future “TV dinners” on rushed nights.

A note on the tomato paste: Don’t you hate recipes that call for a tablespoon or such? Yeah, me too. But my grocery store has started selling tomato paste in tubes, like toothpaste, that keep perfectly in the fridge for a long time. It’s not with the canned tomato paste (God forbid it be simple) but up on a top shelf with the canned grated Parmesan and pizza sauce and artichokes. Give a look-see at your store. If they don’t carry it, canned tomato paste also freezes really well; take it out of the can and pop it in a freezer bag.

I made this today for my brother and sister-in-law who had a baby this morning (Yay!!), because it tastes good and is super comforting and is great in the freezer and microwave, and it’s great for nursing moms (no real spices or veggies to upset little tummies). I hope your family enjoys it too.

To make a big meatloaf, you’ll need:

1 medium onion, chopped (I ran mine through the Cuisinart)

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp salt (I omit this, but Barefoot calls for it)

1/2 tsp pepper

1/2 tsp dried thyme

3/4 of a 1/3 cup measure of Worcestershire sauce (how’s that for proper measuring?)

1/2 cup chicken broth or stock

1 tsp tomato paste

3 pounds ground turkey

1 cup bread crumbs (I like Italian style)

2 large eggs, beaten


Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and line a large baking sheet (with a lip around the edges) with parchment paper or foil sprayed with cooking spray.

In a medium pan over medium heat, cook the onions, oil, salt, pepper, and thyme until they’re transluscent and soft, about 10 minutes. Add the Worcester, chicken broth and tomato paste and stir together. Remove from heat and let cool until you can touch it.

With your hands (oh stop–you’ll survive), gently fold together the turkey, eggs, bread crumbs, and onion mixture in a large bowl. DO NOT squeeze the meat unless you enjoy tough meatloaf. Fold it gently until it’s mixed and then stop.

Form the meat into a loaf on the sheet pan (mine runs lengthwise end to end, all the way). Spread ketchup over the top of the loaf and bake for 90 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Slice and enjoy.

Chocolate Zucchini Muffins

11 Aug

Remember that zucchini my mom’s neighbor gave us? I started today off thinking I’d make zucchini bread with it. Then I decided I was more in the mood for muffins, and then chocolate zucchini muffins came up on a Google search, and, well, that was that. Destiny.

I found a recipe that looked pretty good, but it had a ton of sugar and a ton of oil in it. So I started messing around: I substituted wheat flour for part of the white, reduced the overall sugar by almost half and split that between brown (which loves chocolate) and white, added a mashed ripe banana for some of the fat and replaced liquid fat (which spreads) with a solid fat (which fluffs), ditched a bunch of seasonings in favor of instant coffee granules (to deepen the chocolate flavor), and upped the baking powder to help give these babies a little crown on top. I also added mini chocolate chips. I have kids.

This came together pretty quickly. I grated about one and a half zucchini with the finest side of my trusty old-fashioned box grater, which took less than a minute. Everything else was dumped into the stand mixer, which did its work in no time flat. You could very easily mix these by hand or with a hand mixer if that’s what you have.

If you don’t have instant coffee granules around, think about adding a teaspoon of cinnamon or a half-teaspoon of espresso powder instead. You’re deepening the chocolate flavor with those, not adding another flavor. And that banana? You won’t taste it in the final muffins, which are fluffy and moist and chocolatey.

There is still quite a bit of sugar in this recipe, but bear in mind, you’ll get about 18 to 24 muffins out of it, depending on how large or small you make yours; I got 20, but I like ’em big. The final serving doesn’t have much, all things considered. These have more of a dark chocolate flavor to them than a sweet cookie flavor; up the sugar or add some honey if you’re looking for more of a milk chocolate muffin.

To make my chocolate zucchini muffins, you’ll need:

1/2 cup light brown sugar

3/4 cup white sugar

1/2 cup shortening (you can use butter, but it’ll change the flavor slightly)

1 very ripe banana, mashed

3 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

2 cups grated zucchini (about 1 1/2 normal-sized veggies)

1 cup wheat flour

2 cups all-purpose flour (use 3 cups AP if you don’t have wheat)

1/3 cup cocoa powder (I used plain old Hershey’s)

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 tsp instant coffee granules (I used decaf because that’s what we had)

1/2 cup mini chocolate chips

Pre-heat your oven to 350 degrees and grease a muffin tin. Set aside.

Cream together sugars, shortening, and banana until well-combined. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat after each. Add vanilla and zucchini and stir until combined.

Stir in flours, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cocoa, and coffee granules. When the batter comes together, add mini chocolate chips and stir to combine. Do not over-mix this batter–it’ll toughen right up. You’re going for just-combined.

Fill your muffin tins 2/3 to 3/4 full. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, depending on your oven temperature–you want to bake just until a wooden toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Chocolate, veggies, whole wheat. What’s better than that?

Crockpot Lasagna

10 Aug

I had a girls-night-out date with friends last night, which meant whatever dinner I made at home was only for DH and the kids. And it was one of those days I felt like I was flying–this one has a doctor’s appointment, that one has a playdate, gotta register for ballet, grocery store run, and wow, gotta actually work a few hours–without a whole lot of spare time for playing with food.

My gang is an easy one to feed, generally speaking, and peanut butter sandwiches or cereal would have done them just fine. But I really did want them to have a hot meal, and so I gave them cow.

I’m not a red meat eater, but the rest of my crew loves beef from time to time. There’s no better time to indulge them than on a night I’ll be out, and there’s not an easier way than Crockpot lasagna.

This was a Weight Watchers recipe that was actually really good on its own. I’ve doctored it up to boost its heft a bit: I added an egg to the ricotta layers (and a bit more ricotta than the original recipe) to give them a little more substance, boosted the meat a little bit (you could also add mushrooms to this if you wanted even more oompf), and messed with the spices to simplify matters. The original recipe called for basil and oregano, and in my house, that translates to a shake or two of Italian Seasoning instead. I also used less onion than the recipe called for and upped the garlic.

A word on the meat: If you’re a beef eater, this is a great meal. My family gobbled it up. If you’re not, it works really well with ground chicken. I know. Turkey. Everybody uses ground turkey. But slow-cooking ground turkey results in a kind of odd chewy texture to the sauce. I love me a good turkey burger (we’ll talk about that soon), but turkey in spaghetti sauce doesn’t rock my world. Ground chicken holds up just like beef and since it absorbs the flavor of whatever you cook it with, is a great substitute in this recipe. My pathetic excuse of a Soviet-era supermarket carries ground chicken breast meat, but your butcher will grind a few breasts for you if you don’t see it pre-wrapped in the meat case at your store.

This recipe is super saucy when you put it in the crock. Fear not–you’re not cooking the noodles first, so they absorb a whole lot of the moisture. You’ll end up with a traditional lasagna texture here, not a soupy mess (as I feared the first time). I use the no-cook noodles, but I hear that regular noodles work just fine; if you’ve tried that, leave me a comment and let me know. 🙂 A friend of mine uses jarred spaghetti sauce instead of tomatoes and sauce and she says it comes out really nicely that way. This also freezes beautifully if you have leftovers and want to hold onto them.

Haul out the slow cooker and give this one a whirl. I hope your family likes it as much as mine does.

You’ll need:

1 1/4 pounds lean ground beef (I use 7% fat) or ground chicken

1/2 small yellow onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

28 oz can crushed tomatoes

15 oz can tomato sauce (I use the pre-seasoned)

1 tsp dried Italian seasoning

1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1 1/4 cup part-skim Ricotta cheese

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided

6 no-cook lasagna noodles

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and coat with olive oil. Add meat, onion, and garlic and saute until the meat browns (you don’t have to cook it all the way through). Add the tomatoes, sauce, and spices. Simmer about 5 or 10 minutes to let flavors meld together.

In a medium bowl, stir together ricotta, egg, and 1 cup of the mozzarella.

Spoon 1/3 of the beef mixture into your Crockpot (at least 5 quart size). Break three of the lasagna sheets into pieces and arrange over meat mixture to cover. Top that with half the ricotta mixture. Repeat layers, ending with a layer of meat sauce.

Put the lid on your Crockpot and cook on low 4 to 6 hours. Turn cooker off. Sprinkle top with Parmesan and remaining mozzarella and put the lid back on for about 10 minutes to let the cheese melt. Uncover and let sit about 15 minutes to firm up the lasagna.

I get about eight servings from this recipe. Your mileage may vary…

Dinner Party

9 Aug

We had friends to dinner last night and since “what to make” is a perpetual conundrum for many of us, I thought I’d share our menu and a few tips with you.

The day before dinner, I made a simple pound cake. Any recipe will do. The only fiddling I do with these is to add the zest of one lemon. You won’t be able to pinpoint lemon in the finished cake, but it’ll taste a little brighter than one without.

A few hours before our guests arrived, I zested and juiced lemons and prepared the oil for Giada’s Pasta with Lemon Oil and Shrimp, which is a great entertaining recipe–everyone likes it and it comes together very quickly and easily. The oil is best if you add the lemon zest a few hours ahead, so you might as well deal with the rest of the lemons ahead of time.

I also chopped tomatoes and cucumber for my tomato cucumber salad. I didn’t chop the basil ahead of time–the edges will blacken. Covered that with plastic wrap and set it aside. I also opened and drained a can of Italian-style diced tomatoes, and mixed those with one clove of chopped garlic.

About 20 minutes before the party, I cut a baguette in half lengthwise and toasted it under the broiler. When it was done, I brushed it with olive oil, cut it into slices, topped the oil side with the drained tomato/garlic mixture, sprinkled it with Parmesan, and popped it back under the broiler for five minutes to let the cheese melt. Voila–bruschetta. I set those on the kitchen counter with a bottle of wine and glasses, to kick things off.

While the bread toasted, I whipped half a pint of heavy whipping cream with a tablespoon and a half of powdered sugar and a quarter-teaspoon of vanilla extract. Covered that and set it in the fridge for later.

Once we all settled in, I made the rest of the pasta while everyone sat around the kitchen island with their wine. I love that fettucini recipe but do fiddle with it: I don’t add any pasta water to mine and I replace bitter arugula with sweet basil. I also add a pinch of red pepper flakes and use a little less oil than she calls for. Pine nuts would also be good in this but I didn’t do that this time around.

While the water boiled, I popped the garlic bread under the broiler for a few minutes, and then sliced it, put it in a cloth napkin-lined basket, and set it on the table.

Once the pasta wrapped up, I poured the vinegar and oil over my salad and put everything in big bowls, which went in the middle of the dining room table. We ate family-style, with everyone serving themselves, and it worked beautifully. Dessert was served the same way, with a plate of pound cake slices, a bowl of the whipped cream, and a bowl of blueberries that were all passed. I like family-style parties because everything is passed at least twice so no one feels self-conscious about taking seconds, and it encourages chatting and lingering. We hadn’t seen our friends in awhile, and lingering was welcome.

This meal was perfect for a summer party. It tasted light and fresh, but no one went home feeling hungry and we all enjoyed the evening. Two thumbs up.

The Love of my Amateur Cook’s Life

6 Aug

Eleven years ago, DH and I bought our first house. He had a small townhouse that housed our first two years of wedded bliss, but this was our first place together and our first grown-up house. Our own walls that didn’t touch anybody else’s walls, our own driveway, our own fence.

My own kitchen.

It was, at the time, a pit of a kitchen. Stained Formica countertops with a big burn mark next to the sink, a stained and torn linoleum floor, and rough-textured cabinets that were too awful to describe. But it was my kitchen, and I settled in almost immediately (weeks before we started living there), filling the built-in spice rack with little jars, choosing which drawer (of the whole three) would hold silverware, and picking out a space on that tired counter for our coffeepot.

We’d been in the little house for a few months when my mom showed up with a housewarming gift. A perfect, white, KitchenAid mixer with a perfect stainless steel bowl and perfect attachments, that fit perfectly into the corner, atop that old counter, between the stove and the sink.

It belonged there. And it really was the spark that kicked off my truly learning to cook.

I started with a simple cookie dough and when I realized that this mixer made my old hand mixer look like it was standing still, I tried a double batch. The motor plowed right through. As DH said, “I think if you ever held the paddle still, the house would spin around it.”

A major kitchen renovation, 11 years, and a move around the corner later, my beloved KitchenAid is still my favorite toy. With only the attachments it came with (the dough hook is a thing of wonder for those of us who aren’t joyful kneaders) and an extra steel bowl, it works magic almost every day. Breads and cookies and doughs and mashed potatoes and corn pudding and anything you can imagine emerge from beneath its beater, usually with an excited child hoisting herself up on her tippy-toes at the edge of the counter so her nose can poke over the top and she can see what delights are held within. My mixer never stalls. It never clogs. It just whirs along happily, doing whatever I ask of it with nary a complaint.

As far as I’m concerned, the KitchenAid stand mixer is worth every last dime and every inch of counter space it demands, even when resources and space are limited. Life is easier and a lot more fun with my baby over there, next to my canisters of flour and sugar and chips, and I am a happier cooking mama because of it.

What’s your favorite kitchen toy? Same as mine, or something different? Leave me a comment and let me know–I’m always looking for my next happy kitchen investment!

And yes, she’s flamed out. DH did it for me with decals from Pep Boys. Tell me he doesn’t rock too!

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