Archive | August, 2011

Use ‘Em Up Tomatoes au Gratin

30 Aug

We were supposed to go to a party on Saturday–a baby shower for my husband’s cousin who is very happily expecting. Baby showers make me happy, and I gleefully shopped for the perfect gift and then the perfect dish to contribute to the event. It was to be my tomato-cucumber salad, as produce is at its amazing height where I live and I have a big mess o’ basil growing in a box on my deck.

Mother nature apparently shares not my love of showers. While I was wrapping up a little something to welcome the new person to the world, she was wrapping up a hurricane. And then she flung it right up the east coast to my house. When Saturday morning arrived, I sadly put my perfect outfit back on its hanger, called the party-giver to offer my regrets, and stowed my basil and other herbs in the garage to wait it out with our lawn furniture, toys, and random bits of outside life we didn’t want blown away.

That, my dear friends, left me with a mess of tomatoes to use up. And what do we do when we have veggies and need a little pick-me-up?

We toss carbs on top. Carbs and olive oil and garlic, and we toast it up under the broiler to make the most amazing, simple side dish (my lunch today, but who’s really counting?) you can imagine. Your house will smell like Italy and your mouth will be delighted.

This is so good that I’m going to stop rambling on and tell you how to make it, and then you should, right now, while the little red fruits are still at their peak. Go on. You need:

Tomatoes, cut into quarter-inch slices

Italian-style bread crumbs–I used about a third of a cup

Garlic powder–I used about a teaspoon

Grated Parmesan cheese–I used about two tablespoons.

Olive oil


Pre-heat your broiler, to low if you have a choice. Spray a small casserole dish with olive oil or nonstick spray. Layer your tomatoes in the dish, in a single layer as much as possible, overlapping where necessary. Sprinkle them with a touch of salt and a drizzle of oil.

In a small bowl, mix together the bread crumbs, cheese, and garlic powder. Lay that mixture on top of your tomatoes until they’re just peeking out. Drizzle a bit more olive oil on top and put the dish under the broiler until the crumbs are brown and toasty. Enjoy.

(My amounts are inexact–it depends on your dish size and the number of tomatoes you use. But this is a perfect playing recipe–you can’t possibly mess it up. Guesstimate, adjust, and have at it.)


Don’t forget my giveaway!! It’s super easy!

1) “Like” Playing With My Dinner on Facebook and post a note on the wall saying hi so I know you’re new in town, or

2) Convince a friend to “like” the blog and post a note telling me you referred them, and…

You can win a $30 giftcard to Williams-Sonoma! Buy yourself a super fun present to have even more fun by the stove! Like the blog or refer a friend by September 1 to enter!

Windy City–Getting Ready

26 Aug

That right there is bearing down on my area as we speak. Ugly, ain’t she? If the weather guys are right, Irene will be the first big storm to hit the D.C. area since Isabel, which knocked out my power for nearly five days, flooded a bunch of houses near to my heart, and caused me to loathe and despise hurricanes and tropical storms. I had a two-year-old and a newborn then, and let’s just say it was less than amusing.

I’ve been away for the last week and seem to have arrived home just in time for Irene to pound on my door (leave my trees alone, wench!). The plan was to hit the grocery store yesterday afternoon, but not wanting to meet every crazed person in my Zip code, I waited, and went to my local market at 5:40 this morning.

You read that right. It was still relatively busy in there, believe it or not, and they had one register open (you suck, Giant!), and there were plenty of crazy-eyed people snatching anything not nailed down from the shelf as I did my regular shopping.

So here’s the point: It’s a good idea to prepare for storms like these, and you don’t have to resort to PB&J and granola bars for a week after one hits.

I have two things in my arsenal that help me, both of which were purchased after Isabel made me crazy in 2003. The first is a gasoline-powered generator that will keep my fridge, coffee maker, and a few other things running; it cost about one and a half refrigerators’ worth of food, so you can do the math to figure out if that kind of investment is worth it for your family. It keeps me from completely losing my composure during extended outages (which, sadly, are not rare here in the nation’s capital) and lets me relax a bit.

The second is a gas range, which I can light with a flame and keep cooking. Now, if you don’t have a gas range, it’s time to stock up on propane or charcoal for your grill, because the rest of this still applies to you. And if you don’t have a generator, go grab some dry ice or block ice (lasts longer than cubes) and a big cooler or two, and keep on reading.

Post-storm cooking is a lot like camping. Make a list of meals that are stovetop-friendly, shop accordingly, and save yourself from Wonderbread Syndrome after two or three days sans electricity. Just about anything you make on the stove regularly or in a Crockpot can be cooked on a gas range or a grill when the power’s out. I’m planning tacos and pasta for a few days after Irene, so those are possibilities. Steak, burgers, bbq chicken, pad thai, lo mein, fish filets or steaks–all are great on the grill or the gas range (make sure you have one or two heavy-bottomed pans and pots around, so your grill doesn’t burn your food if you’re going to cook that way; my Calphalon is awesome on the grill). Throw your griddle or large pan on there and enjoy pancakes, French toast, eggs, bacon–think breakfast for dinner.

Make a list of things that are grill/gas range friendly and shop from it a day or two before a storm, and you’ll be golden after. Of course, stock up on things like water and batteries (and, yes, granola bars and peanut butter) too; we’ve had a shelf for such things in our house since September 11, 2001 and refresh it every few months. Freeze a gallon of milk and a container of juice ahead of time, and you can both use those as ice in your cooler after and sip from them as they thaw; ditto, of course, for water. Think camping!

I’m not looking forward to this storm, which they’re saying is going to hit my town sometime tomorrow afternoon. But my kitchen is ready and we have a pile of books, magazines, art supplies, and board games at the ready, and I know the power guys will be out as soon as they can after to bring us all back online. Hugs to you if you’re in her path with me, and chat next week!


Don’t forget my giveaway!! It’s super easy!

1) “Like” Playing With My Dinner on Facebook and post a note on the wall saying hi so I know you’re new in town, or

2) Convince a friend to “like” the blog and post a note telling me you referred them, and…

You can win a $30 giftcard to Williams-Sonoma! Buy yourself a super fun present to have even more fun by the stove! Like the blog or refer a friend by September 1 to enter!

Barbecue Chicken Chopped Salad

24 Aug

A couple of you asked me to explain this salad yesterday when I mentioned it in a post about roasting canned or frozen corn to freshen it up. Your wish is my command, loves.

First up, I’ll admit–that photo above isn’t mine. That’s the chopped barbecue salad at Panera Bread, which inspired me to roast some corn in the first place. I took a photo of my salad yesterday, but the chicken didn’t look so much like chicken (we’ve established that I am not a photographer) and that didn’t seem right.

On to the good stuff. This works equally well with pulled chicken already mixed with barbecue sauce, or plain sliced chicken (poached, roasted, or rotisserie) onto which you pour a little BBQ. I’ve seen it done both ways. I prefer pulled only because I am a barbecue sauce fiend and enjoy a lot of it on my greens, but you do what makes you happy.

My only solid recommendation for this salad is that you stick with romaine lettuce. It’s crunchy and crisp and mild, so it doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the salad. You can still taste everything else. I’ve tried other lettuces and they’re either too watery (iceberg), too limp (butter) or too strong in flavor (everything else).

This is a layered salad. I usually layer all the ingredients except the chicken and dressing in a big bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, and keep it in the fridge for a few days, scooping out what I want at any moment, adding chicken and dressing to that, and returning the rest of the naked greens and veggies to the icebox for the next day.

Be creative with this. If you don’t like beans, leave them out or change them up. Ditto for cheese, onion, or anything else. This is a very flexible plan for a yummy salad. My only other bit of advice is to go easy on the dressing–you really just want a drizzle to perk up the barbecue sauce a bit. Too much, and your sauce will be overwhelmed and the whole thing will taste a bit off.

So. On with the party! In a big bowl, layer all or some of the following according to your taste:

Romaine lettuce

Corn kernels (roasted as we chatted about yesterday, or plain)

Black or pinto beans, rinsed well and drained

Tomato, either cherry/grape or big and chopped

Onion. I prefer red and chopped small, but caramelized sweet onion is also delicious.

Cucumber, peeled and chopped.

Cheddar cheese or queso fresco

All of the above will store in the fridge for several days. When you’re ready to eat some, scoop it into a bowl and add:

Chopped avocado

A drizzle of ranch dressing

Pulled chicken (or rotisserie/roasted/poached chicken with bbq sauce on top)


Mix together and enjoy!


Don’t forget my giveaway!! It’s super easy!

1) “Like” Playing With My Dinner on Facebook and post a note on the wall saying hi so I know you’re new in town, or

2) Convince a friend to “like” the blog and post a note telling me you referred them, and…

You can win a $30 giftcard to Williams-Sonoma! Buy yourself a super fun present to have even more fun by the stove! Like the blog or refer a friend by September 1 to enter!


Trick Your Canned or Frozen Corn

23 Aug

Once or twice a month, you’ll find my family at our favorite restaurant, enjoying fajitas, burritos, and, for me, a yummy barbecue chicken chopped salad. I’m not a huge salad lover, truth be told, but the combination of barbecued chicken and fresh greens and veggies is among my favorite meals.

We took the kids to the beach last weekend and, sandy and exhausted, stopped at a Panera for dinner on our way home. They have a barbecue chicken chopped salad on the menu, and having stuffed myself with fried yumminess and caramel popcorn earlier in the day, I ordered it–fresh and light sounded wonderful. This salad lacked the chopped avocado of my favorite, but kicked its butt in the flavor department. It took me a minute, but I figured out the difference.

Roasted corn. Just a bit of browning on the corn kernels boosted their flavor in an amazing way–I really couldn’t believe the difference. And so I tried it today while making my own barbecue chopped salad for lunch, with the same effect.

It’s very simple. Preheat your broiler (to low, if yours lets you choose a temperature). Drain canned or frozen (and thawed) corn and spread it on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Pop that under the broiler for about five minutes, or until it starts to brown along the tops and edges:

Turn on your exhaust fan. It’s a little smokey.

Once you have some brown on the corn, take it out of the oven, cool on the baking sheet, and toss it into your salad. You won’t believe how good this simple trick is!

(You can absolutely do this with fresh corn, but it’s a great trick for frozen or canned when fresh isn’t at its peak.)


Don’t forget my giveaway!! It’s super easy!

1) “Like” Playing With My Dinner on Facebook and post a note on the wall saying hi so I know you’re new in town, or

2) Convince a friend to “like” the blog and post a note telling me you referred them, and…

You can win a $30 giftcard to Williams-Sonoma! Buy yourself a super fun present to have even more fun by the stove! Like the blog or refer a friend by September 1 to enter!

A Bribe! I mean, A Prize!

17 Aug

Have you liked Playing With My Dinner on Facebook yet?

Will you do it to win stuff? (Hang in there if the answer to the first question was “yes.” You’re in too.)

As if it’s not enough to chat about food and kitchen fun on our fantabulous wall, I have a great prize for new fans and people who refer new fans over there on Facebook. So here’s the deal. Either:

1) “Like” Playing With My Dinner on Facebook and post a note on the wall saying hi so I know you’re new in town, or

2) Convince a friend to “like” the blog and post a note telling me you referred them, and…

You can win a $30 giftcard to Williams-Sonoma! Buy yourself a super fun present to have even more fun by the stove!

I’ll use a random number generator to pick a winner bright and early on September 1, and the giftcard will arrive shortly after that in the lucky winner’s email box.

So what are you waiting for? Come on over and like me! Tell your friends! Go shopping! Whooo-hooooo!




Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake

16 Aug

That up there is my breakfast. And it’s all Julie’s fault.

Besides being one of my favorite mom bloggers, Julie is a Twitter buddy of mine. About two weeks ago, she Tweeted me that she was enjoying a big slice of chocolate chip cake. And I have been slightly obsessed ever since (which is a sad commentary on my mental state, but I digress).

I found a recipe for a brown sugar chocolate chip cookie cake that sounded delicious. It baked up in a loaf pan, which was a huge bonus (I really really really do not need an entire bundt cake laying around), and was very similar to a chocolate chip cookie recipe. A cake that tastes like cookies? Sign me up.

But. (There’s always a but with me and recipes. Another slightly disturbing personal issue.) That recipe wanted pastry flour, and I am just not buying special flours I’ll never use again. I also wanted cake NOW, so a store run was out of the question.

It also wanted a lot of dark brown sugar and no white sugar at all, which meant it would burn really easily and turn bitter, and sounded really dense. It had a ton of butter in it, and it baked for a really long time at a really low temperature, which also contributed to that recipe’s photo looking a little blackened on the outside. If I’m baking a cake, I’m eating every bite, y’all. I’m not into chucking the crust.

I messed around with it and came up with this recipe. Which is delicious. It really tastes just like a chocolate chip cookie, but it’s cake. Talk about your matches made in heaven. And it’s super simple! I made it for dessert last night, but am finding it makes a darned tasty, if not entirely virtuous, breakfast. You need:

2 cups all-purpose white flour

1 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup white sugar

3 eggs

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened (the original recipe had even more–ack!)

1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spray a loaf pan (I strongly recommend Pyrex or clay/ceramic for this, so the crust doesn’t burn on you) with nonstick spray or coat it with butter.

In the bowl of your mixer, whip together the butter and sugars until they’re light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, and vanilla.

Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt. Beat into butter mixture in batches, mixing on low speed only long enough to incorporate everything together–overmixing will toughen up your cake. Mix in the chips with your last scoop of flour, so the chips get a little coated with flour before they go into the cake (this will keep them from sinking to the bottom of the pan in the oven).

Spread batter into your loaf pan and bake until a knife inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean–it was a little more than an hour for me. Cool it in the pan so it doesn’t break apart, carefully turn cooled cake onto a plate, and enjoy.


Super-Fast Friday: At the Table Soup Assembly

12 Aug

I had lunch with an old friend yesterday. He’s recently moved back to the area after being gone for a long time, and so there was really no choice but to take him to Central Michel Richard.


Yes, my loves, I’ll use any excuse to dine in a Richard restaurant and feed my foodie crush on the master of Happy in the Kitchen. Central is a joy–casual, sophisticated, reasonably priced, and absolutely amazing for the taste buds. In fact, my friend–who is from Chicago–told me the lunch we enjoyed was the best he’s ever had in D.C.

This isn’t an ad for the restaurant, although I highly recommend it if you’re ever in town. I learned a trick at lunch yesterday, see, and I’m sharing it with you.

Michel Richard’s restaurants are all (well, Central and Citronelle are. I haven’t yet tried his new digs in Tysons to know) open-kitchen, with little more than glass separating the dining room from the stoves and grills and marble counters backstage. You’re meant to experience the food from start to finish, not just shovel it down your throat mindlessly. Which means that sometimes, they assemble parts of your meal at the table.

My friend and I both ordered the D.C. Restaurant Week special, which was a soup or salad, entree, and dessert, and we both chose the corn and crab chowder. What I didn’t anticipate was our waiter gently placing a bowl before me that had chunks of crab, corn kernels, and some croutons in the bottom. He paused, and then ladled hot chowder broth overtop of that, as we watched.

Nice show, yes? But y’all, I’m telling you, the difference in the texture between that chowder and one that simmers together was amazing. The corn snapped when you bit into it. The crab was crab, not something resembling crabby mush floating around. And those croutons? They stayed crunchy and crisp.

Such a simple thing, and such a big difference. I left, as always, in awe. And I’m also going to try that trick next time we have a chowder-like soup at home. It’s faster and easier than traditional soup simmering, and it was absolutely delicious.

I got to catch up with my friend, enjoy fabulous food, and learn a little something that makes me happier in the kitchen. Not a bad way to spend a lunchtime. 🙂

Simple Grilled Swordfish

11 Aug

I’m swamped, gang. Absolutely swamped. So there is no clever commentary or little story to accompany this recipe, which was born when I saw frozen swordfish on sale a few days ago. I’d never had swordfish before (I’m a Baltimore girl, hon. We eat crab and rockfish) and simple flavors seemed best for my de-flowering, so to speak.

This was quite good. It took only about 7 minutes on my cast-iron grill pan to cook, which is a big bonus, and would do just as well on our outdoor grill. If you’ve not tried this fish either, it’s a nice introduction. You only need:

Swordfish steaks, one per person (I made two large steaks–adjust other ingredients according to the number you’re making)

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp white wine (chicken broth or apple juice will work if you don’t have wine around)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 lemon

salt and pepper

Grate the zest from your lemon and reserve the inside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, wine, lemon zest, and garlic. Put your fish steaks into a large zip-top bag, pour in the marinade, swish it around, and put it in your refrigerator for a few hours, turning it every hour or two.

About a half-hour before dinner, heat up your grill or grill pan until it’s screaming hot. Remove the fish from the bag and squeeze half the lemon over it. Spray your grill with oil or nonstick spray and grill the fish about 5 minutes on each side, until it’s cooked through.

Sprinkle with remaining lemon juice and serve.


Oven-Steamed Sweet Veggies

1 Aug

I stole this idea from an Eagle Scout. Which may make me a Very Bad Person, but so be it. It had to be done.

My son and I spent most of a week at Cub Scout camp in Goshen, Va., this July, and among the highlights of what was a truly spectacular, amazing week (I love, love, LOVE Scouts–best organization for boys and their families ever, in the history of the world) was this super simple veggie dish.

Most of our meals were served in the camp mess hall, you see, and many of those were, sadly, questionable as actual “food” goes. But the third night of camp was “foil packet night,” which was when each den received ingredients and aluminum foil and had at it with their campfires. Dinner that night was slightly chaotic, very late, and probably a wee bit dangerous, but terribly fun and actually delicious, mostly thanks to our den leader who’d done this before and came to camp prepared with spices and such.

I’ve adapted this to an oven, but you can chuck it on your own campfire or on your grill with the same results. The photo above is of the dish ready to cook; I was too busy eating the result to photograph it, you see. It’s sweet and soft and wonderful, and I ate it both as a side and as a topping for roasted chicken; each bite of chicken got a little onion and carrot on top, and it was stupifyingly good and comforting.

Grab your ingredients and give this a shot. You need:

1 onion, sliced into half-rings

1 carrot, sliced into discs or a few handfuls of baby-cut carrots

About 1 tbsp butter

About 2 tbsp brown sugar

A pinch of thyme or Italian seasoning

A pinch of salt

Heat your oven to 425 degrees (or so–cook less time at higher heat, and more time at lower), or preheat your campfire or grill. Line a small baking dish with foil, or spread two pieces of foil out on your work surface, overlapping them in the middle, to make a plate of sorts.

Lay your onion and carrot slices/pieces on the foil.

Cut the butter into tiny cubes and mix them up with the veggies. Add the brown sugar, toss everything together, and bring the foil up over the sides to make a bowl. Gently pour in a few tablespoons of water (you want steam, not boiling, so not too much), and fold the foil onto itself to make a packet, sealing up all the sides and the top. Put that into the oven or onto your fire/grill, and cook about 20 minutes, or until the veggies are soft and the onions have a golden hue to them.

BE CAREFUL opening the foil, y’all!! Steam is going to rush out the top and you do not want a burn!


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