Saturday, October 30, 2010

Gourmet Grilled Cheese with Arugula Pesto

It's not often that Gavin and I find ourselves at home for lunch on a weekend. We are usually out somewhere together, or  one of us is busy doing something or another. Although I cook most of our dinners, and occasionally a breakfast, for us to enjoy together, I don't often do much for lunch. Lunch is the perfect time to enjoy those leftovers from whatever we have had at recent dinners. But this weekend, with temperatures too cold for the lake and no wedding to plan, we have found ourselves at home with nothing pressing on the agenda. It's a wonderful feeling to have a whole day stretch in front of you, with nothing that absolutely must be done. These moments are few and far between and definitely deserve to be savored.

So in honor of our lazy Saturday afternoon, I decided to see what I could do to put together a lunch worthy of the day. Something warm to compliment the cool fall air but also something that I could make from what I had on hand. With half a container of baby arugula, I decided to make a pesto using the arugula and some walnuts I had left over from some pumpkin muffins I made earlier in the week. I also had some delicious smoked Gouda that I knew would make a simple grilled cheese sandwich taste special. There's something so comforting about grilled cheese sandwiches. The warm, gooey cheese in between crispy toasted bread. It's pretty much the perfect sandwich. And, even though I love a plain grilled cheese with cheddar, it's fun to mix it up and add other ingredients to make it more "gourmet."
This sandwich, with smoked Gouda and arugula pesto, has all the comforting aspects of a great grilled cheese but is just fancy enough to taste special. The arugula pesto would also work well tossed with pasta or spread on pizza, so make extra and use it again for another meal. And if you aren't lucky enough to have a free Saturday afternoon to enjoy lunch with your hubby (or anyone else for that matter), then feel free to make a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner, or breakfast, or a snack, whenever really, just as long as you get to enjoy this delicious comfort food.

Arugula Pesto
  • 4-5 cups arugula, loosely packed
  • 1/3 cup walnuts, toasted
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
Puree arugula, walnuts and Parmesan cheese until they come together and are chopped fine.
Stream in olive oil slowly, incorporating enough to make a thick paste.
Season with salt and pepper.

Grilled Cheese (serves 2)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil or butter
  • 4 slices of bread, your favorite variety
  • 2 tbsp arugula pesto
  • 6-8 thin slices of smoked Gouda
Heat olive oil or butter in a saute pan over medium to medium low heat.
Spread 1/2 tablespoon on each slice of bread.
Layer enough cheese to cover one half of each sandwich.
Grill in hot pan till both sides are brown and cheese is melted.
Or you could always use a panini press if you happen to have one.
Eat and enjoy!

For a printable recipe click here

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chicken, Tomato and Ricotta Pasta Sauce

In general, I try to plan my meals. Even if this ends up happening at the store, I like to have an idea of what I'm going to make, and what will go together, ahead of time. This way I don't end up starting a meal only to realize I'm missing the main ingredient, or some crucial component. You don't want to start making macaroni and cheese and realize you have no macaroni, or something along those lines. I also try to buy just enough of perishable items as I'll need for a certain meal so that I don't end up throwing things out because they sat in my refrigerator too long. However, you cannot always buy things in the exact quantity you want. Fruits and vegetables generally come in manageable amounts that can be made smaller or larger, based on your needs. Dairy, on the other hand, comes prepackaged and must be purchased as a whole. I don't think there are any grocery stores that let you take just one cup of buttermilk or two tablespoons of sour cream. Wouldn't that be nice? So when I buy a package of something and don't use all of it, I hate to throw the rest out. But when it is an item that I don't use frequently, I have to get creative.
One night this week, I found myself with a head of broccoli and a package of chicken breasts. I knew that I could use both of these things easily when I bought them so I hadn't really planned what I wanted to do with them. I could always chop them both up and make a stirfry over rice. But I've done that. As I was looking through my refrigerator for inspiration, I realized that I had half a container of part-skim ricotta left over from my pizza making last week. Rather than let it sit in the back of my refrigerator till it was past the point of healthy use, I decided to figure out a way to incorporate into my dinner. What goes better with ricotta cheese than tomatoes, I thought. I didn't want to make an entire lasagna, of course, but I figured I could make a simple pasta sauce with flavors reminiscent of lasagna. Toss the chicken in and boil up some pasta, and I'd have myself a meal. The rest of the ingredients were all things I had on hand so it didn't take long to make this simple dinner. A whole lot easier than making a lasagna from scratch, this sauce could easily be made with ground meat or spinach, depending on what type of lasagna you like. Cutting the chicken into small pieces makes it cook a lot faster so the whole meal is done in the time it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta.

Chicken, Tomato and Ricotta Pasta Sauce (serves 4)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 shallot, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 pound chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 4-5 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp dried basil
  • Pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 x 15 oz cans diced tomatoes
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup part-skim ricotta
  • 8-12 oz penne pasta
  • Parmesan cheese, for garnish (optional) 
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.
Saute shallot for a few minutes to soften. Add garlic and cook for another minute.
Add chicken and season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Cook until chicken is almost cooked through (it will continue cooking in the sauce).
Add thyme, oregano, basil, red pepper flakes and both cans of tomatoes. Stir to combine.
Simmer until sauce thickens, about 10-12 minutes. Remove thyme stems.
Turn heat off and stir in ricotta cheese. Season with salt and pepper if needed.
Cook pasta according to package directions, drain and toss with hot sauce.
Garnish with Parmesan cheese, if desired.

For a printable recipe click here

Chicken, Tomato and Ricotta Pasta Sauce

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Grilled Pork and Roasted Sweet Potatoes: One Spice Rub Two Ways

Getting creative with spices can be tricky if you're not sure what goes with what. Fortunately there are a lot of great spice blends out there. But you have to be careful since some our mostly salt with a few other things thrown into the mix. By making your own spice blends you can control the salt content as well as all of the other flavors based on your own tastes. Some mild spice blends could use some extra heat while others are too spicy for certain dishes. I highly recommend getting a spice grinder. Not only can you make your own spice blends but you can chop up nuts as well. Freshly ground spices are a lot more pungent and, well, fresh tasting than the ground spices you buy at the store. Don't get me wrong, ground spices are great and definitely work well for most things. But if you have a spice grinder, your options for combining flavors are pretty much endless.
If you don't have a spice grinder, the spices for this meal can all be purchased pre-ground and will still taste wonderful together. The blend is based loosely off a recipe I found on Epicurious for roasted sweet potatoes. I decided to make the sweet potatoes and use the remaining spice mix on pork chops. Sweet potatoes and pork taste so different on their own that using the same spice mix only serves to bring the meal together without making everything taste the same. By cooking some pears in with the pork, you can create a sweet sauce to go over the pork in only a few minutes. 
Spice Rubbed Pork and Sweet Potatoes (serves 4)
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp fennel seeds
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 pound thin-cut boneless pork chops, about 4 chops
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, sliced into wedges (about 3 cups)
  • 1 pear, cored and diced
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tbsp honey
Preheat oven to 425F.
In a spice grinder, combine first six ingredients.
In a roasting pan or cookie sheet, toss together sweet potato wedges, 1 tbsp olive oil, and about 1 tbsp of spice mixture.
Roast for 30 minutes, tossing halfway through.
Season both sides of each pork chop with the remaining spice mixture.
Heat remaining 1 tbsp olive oil in a large pan over medium heat.
Place each pork chop in the pan along with the chopped pear and cook, without moving, for about 4-5 minutes to brown.
Flip pork chops over and finish cooking for about another 5 minutes for 1/2 inch pork chops, longer if they are thicker. Cook to about 140F.
Leave pears in the pan and deglaze with white wine. Deglazing picks up the cooked spices from the bottom of the pan and combines them into the sauce.
Stir in honey and let reduce for about 5 more minutes.
Serve pear sauce over grilled pork.

For a printable recipe click here

Spiced Rubbed Pork and Sweet Potatoes

Monday, October 25, 2010

Chicken Sausage, White Bean and Cabbage Soup

Nothing beats spending time with close friends and I got to do just that this weekend in LA. One of my college roommates is getting married in December and just had a bachelorette/ bridal shower weekend. Weddings are a great motivator to get friends together, regardless of where we all live. For this particular weekend, I got to spend time with three of my closest college friends who now live in Texas, San Francisco and LA. Considering the fact I live in North Carolina, we don't get to see each other that often. So hopefully our whole group of friends will just continue to get married so that we can all see each other on a somewhat regular basis. :) But marriages or otherwise, it is always wonderful to spend time with close friends.
This weekend was a great couple of days of relaxing by the pool, catching up and eating great food. But with only two days in LA and two long cross-country flights on either end, I was totally worn out when I got home this morning. After a short nap to try to recover from a red-eye home, I dragged myself out of bed and attempted to start my week as usual. A trip to the grocery store was, of course, in order as was trying to decide what I wanted to make for dinner. The rainy, gray day we had today, combined with being drained from the weekend, made me want something hot and comforting, without too much effort. A hot bowl of soup was exactly what I needed. Something hearty and healthy that I could feel good about eating that would also make me feel better after a long day. This soup combines the protein of chicken and beans with the healthy crunch of green cabbage. The red pepper flakes add a slight touch of heat in the background while the fennel in the sausage adds a subtle sweetness. Served with some toasted bread, it's an entire meal in one bowl that's both satisfying and comforting.

Sausage, White Bean and Cabbage Soup (Serves 6)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium white onion, small dice (about 2 cups chopped)
  • 2 carrots, peeled and diced
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 pound mild Italian chicken sausage
  • 4-5 cups low sodium chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 15 oz can white beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 head green cabbage (I used savoy)
In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat.
Saute onions until tender, about 8 minutes.
Add carrots and continue cooking for another 5 minutes.
Season with salt, pepper, garlic and red pepper flakes; cook for another minute.
Remove sausage from casing and break into small chunks in the pot.
Toss with vegetables to brown meat, cooking for another 8-10 minutes.
Pour in stock, enough to cover everything; bring to a simmer.
Add white beans and cabbage, stirring to combine.
Simmer, covered, until cabbage is wilted but not mushy, about 10 minutes.
Generally the sausage will contain enough salt for the soup, but check seasoning and add more salt or pepper if needed.

For a printable recipe click here

Chicken Sausage, White Bean and Cabbage Soup

Friday, October 22, 2010

Herb "Chimichurri" Sauce: Dressing Up Dinner

My younger sister started college this fall. She's the last in my family to leave home: a pretty big deal for a family as close as mine. When she comes home for the weekend, we all get together for dinner at my parents' house. She's been home a few weekends, visiting friends, for fall break and, of course, for my wedding. My mom has been cooking big family dinners my entire life but recently she has started deferring to me for recipe ideas and help in the preparation. I always helped my mom cook when I was younger--a lot of what I know about cooking comes from her. But as I've been doing more cooking on my own, I have been able to return the favor and give my mom some pointers and ideas for new things to make.
For my sister's most recent trip home, she requested that I make an herb sauce I had made for a previous family dinner. I hadn't thought much of it the first time as it was basically a way to use up left over fresh herbs before they went bad. The sauce is a nod to the Argentinian green sauce, known as chimichurri, that is generally served over steak. We were grilling steak and shrimp, so the sauce was an easy accompaniment to liven up the meal. I made the sauce the first time as sort of an afterthought but it turned out to be a great alternative to a general steak sauce. The bright green color and fresh taste of the herbs adds a nice touch to any grilled meat. We went with steak and shrimp but chicken or pork would work well too. The vinegar and lime juice gives the sauce a nice acidity that contrasts the richer flavors of the grilled meat.

Chimichurri Sauce
  • 1 bunch fresh parsley, stems removed
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • 2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced (optional, if you don't like the bite of raw garlic, leave this out)
  • 1/2 - 3/4 cup olive oil
  • Juice of 1 lime
  • Salt and pepper
Roughly chop or tear the parsley and cilantro.
Pulse the herbs together in a food processor to break down.
Add in vinegar and combine.
While the motor is running, stream in about 1/2 cup olive oil.
Squeeze in juice of 1 lime, season with salt and pepper.
The sauce should be relatively smooth and not too thick. Add more olive oil if necessary.

For a printable recipe click here

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Mushroom, Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza

Food allergies are considered by a lot of people to be a devastating blow. Having to give up a food, or even an entire food group, can be really hard, especially if it's an allergy that developed later in life. But even children who are born with food allergies have a hard time saying no to foods that their friends get to enjoy. I cannot imagine a life without shellfish, but there are many people who must avoid shellfish at all cost. Only a few months ago, I would not have been able to imagine a life without bread, or everything with gluten in it, for that matter. But rather than being devastated at all that I am giving up, I have looked at eating gluten free as a challenge to figure out how to make all of the delicious foods that usually contain gluten in new ways that I can eat. Fortunately there are a lot of great blogs and cookbooks out there that have already done the work for me to figure out what flours to combine to make dough that tastes and feels like regular dough.
One thing I hated to even think about giving up was pizza. So when I found a recipe for a gluten free pizza crust, I knew I had to try it. The dough tasted pretty good but I need to do some more practice runs before it's worthy of a post. I will work on the dough recipe and do a post on it in the future for anyone interested in gluten free pizza. In the meantime, I will have to come up with creative pizza toppings for my "research." Poor me! For my first gluten free pizza attempt, I combined sweet caramelized onions with tangy goat cheese, which made for a very different and delicious pizza. Feel free to make this pizza on any kind of crust you like. I love Boboli's Whole Wheat pizza crust, available at most grocery stores. The ricotta cheese replaces a traditional tomato sauce but can still be a healthy option by using part-skim ricotta.

Mushroom, Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza
  • 1 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 small white onion, thinly sliced, about 2 cups
  • 1 12" pizza crust
  • 1 cup part-skim ricotta
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice (from about 1/2 lemon)
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
  • 4-5 oz mushrooms, sliced (I used shiitake)
  • 4 oz goat cheese
  • Salt and pepper
Heat about 1/2 tbsp olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat.
Saute onion slices, seasoned with a pinch of salt and pepper, until lightly brown and very soft, about 20 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425F (check pizza crust instructions).
In a small bowl, combine ricotta, lemon zest and juice, and thyme leaves. Season with salt and pepper.
Drizzle the remaining olive oil over the pizza crust.
Spread ricotta mixture to about 1/2 inch from edge.
Layer mushroom slices and caramelized onions all over the pizza.
Crumble goat cheese over everything.
Cook for about 10-12 minutes, based on dough being used.

For a printable recipe click here

Mushroom, Onion and Goat Cheese Pizza

Monday, October 18, 2010

Apricot-Corn Chutney and Cilantro Sauce: Two Sauces Make a Great Meal

Gavin and I are looking to buy our first house together. A fun, but somewhat overwhelming, process. We want something that's in a great neighborhood, reasonablely priced and will accommodate the family we want to have. But most importantly, it must have a good kitchen. Not only do I spend, what feels like, most of my life in the kitchen, but a kitchen is truly the heart of any home. No matter how nice your dining room or living room, people always end up in the kitchen. We love to have people over for dinner or drinks and we always congregate around the bar area in our apartment's kitchen. This works out great for me since I'm usually making something or putting the finishing touches on appetizers or dinner for my friends. This way I get to hang out with everyone while I'm cooking. So for us, an open kitchen with plenty of space for sitting, gathering, talking is a must.
Because I spend so much time in the kitchen, I try to keep things interesting by making new things. For one, new recipes give me something to write about. And for another, no matter how much I love to cook, I get bored by doing the same things over and over. Since we try not to eat a lot of red meat and stick with leaner proteins like fish, pork and chicken, I have to get even more creative with how I prepare them. Chicken is a great, lean protein as it acts like a blank sheet with endless possibilities for preparation.
However, there are times when breading, or spice-crusting, a piece of chicken just isn't enough. Most people consider chicken a staple of their weekly dinners. It's healthy and can be made in so many ways that it can be made more often than most meats. However, even with a ton of recipe options, chicken can get boring. Sometimes, the best thing to do is focus on the things surrounding the chicken and use it as merely a base for other unique flavors. This apricot and corn chutney does just that. It's sweet and savory at the same time and takes a plain piece of baked chicken to a whole new level. This chutney is good enough to use one day over chicken and the next day spread on a turkey sandwich: think turkey with cranberry sauce, a classic combo. This chutney would also work well with pork tenderloin or a firm, white fish like grouper or cod. If you want to get even more creative, you can also make this simple cilantro sauce. The two sauces compliment each other wonderfully and make for a unique meal, even if it is the third time you've had chicken that week.

Apricot and Corn Chutney
  • 8 oz dried apricots
  • 1 tsp canola oil
  • 1 yellow bell pepper
  • 2 cups corn kernels, from about 4 ears of corn
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp champagne vinegar (apple cider vinegar would also work)
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh Italian parsley
  • Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 425F. Rub canola oil onto bell pepper.
Roast pepper on a cookie sheet or in a small pan for about 20 minutes, turning occasionally, until skin begins to blister.
Place the pepper in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let it sit until it cools enough to handle.
Remove skin and seeds from pepper and roughly chop.
Soak apricots in a bowl of hot water for about 10 minutes. Drain and thinly slice.
Blanch the corn kernels in boiling salted water for one minute. Shock in ice water to stop the cooking.
Drain corn and mix together with roasted pepper and apricots.
Stir in olive oil and vinegar.
Puree about 1/4 of the mixture in a food processor.
Add the pureed mixture back into the chutney. Mix in parsley and season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Can be made a few hours ahead of time; cover and chill until ready to use.

For a printable recipe click here

Cilantro Sauce
  • 1 bunch parsley, stems removed (less 1 tbsp for chutney)
  • 1 bunch fresh cilantro
  • 3 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 tsp lemon zest
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
  • 3/4 - 1 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
In a food processor, combine parsley, cilantro, pine nuts, lemon zest and 1 tbsp lemon juice.
Puree for a few minutes to let everything combine.
With the processor running, stream in olive oil until it reaches the desired consistency: not a thick pesto but not runny.
Add remaining lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

For a printable recipe click here

Recipes adapted from the Gluten Free Girl's cookbook

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Morning Treats: Oatmeal Pancakes with Strawberry Syrup

Breakfast in our house is usually a simple affair. Don't get me wrong, I love breakfast. I just tend to prefer easy options: a bowl of cereal, yogurt and granola, something that is quick and easy. Most of my cooking efforts are concentrated on dinner and when breakfast rolls around, I don't want to work that hard. But when Gavin randomly requested bacon for breakfast one morning, I decided I could break my usual habits and make something more exciting for breakfast. I didn't have any bacon on the morning of his request but I promised I would pick some up for him.
 So this morning I got up a bit earlier than usual and got to work. Since I couldn't just serve my new husband bacon for breakfast--not that he would mind--I decided to also make some pancakes. Since I'm eating gluten free, I went with an oatmeal pancake recipe from Gluten Free Girl. The strawberry "syrup" is a great alternative to regular syrup since it only contains a little added sugar and adds some healthy fruit to the breakfast. And if you aren't gluten free and have your own favorite pancake recipe, feel free to just use the strawberry syrup recipe to mix things up a bit.
With some freshly brewed coffee, these pancakes with a side of crisp bacon made for a wonderful Sunday morning treat for Gavin and me, and I didn't even mind the extra work. And, as another bonus, our place has smelled deliciously of bacon all day.

Oatmeal Pancakes (8-10 small pancakes)
  • 1/2 cup oat flour
  • 1/4 cup white rice flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups cooked oatmeal*
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1-2 tbsp butter or vegetable oil
*I recommend cooking the oatmeal first, or even the night before, to allow it to cool a bit before adding it to the other ingredients.

Mix together oat flour, rice flour, baking powder and salt.
In a separate bowl, whisk eggs.
Add milk to the cooked oatmeal. If the oatmeal is still warm, add a little to the eggs to bring the temperature of the eggs up without scrambling them. Slowly incorporate the remainder of the oatmeal in with the eggs.
Add the oatmeal mixture to the flours, stirring to fully combine.
Heat a large pan over medium-low to medium heat.
Add enough butter or oil to just coat the bottom of the pan.
Pour about 1/3 cup of batter for each pancake, as many as will fit in the pan without touching.
Allow the pancakes to cook until bubbles begin to show on the surface.
Flip over and cook for another minute or two.
Remove pancakes and keep warm. Add a bit more butter to the pan and continue with the remaining pancake batter.
Top with Strawberry Syrup.

Strawberry Syrup
  • 12-16 oz strawberries, stems removed and quartered
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
In a small saucepan, heat the strawberries and sugar over medium heat.
Once they begin to break down a bit, add cinnamon and orange juice.
Simmer for about 5-8 minutes.
Syrup will be runny but soaks into the pancakes perfectly.

For a printable recipe click here

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Parmesan Polenta

One of my best friends is a brilliant law student out in California. She also happens to be a really good cook. I'm often amazed at how ambitious she is in the kitchen, cooking large amounts of gourmet food for big dinner parties. She even did an entire Thanksgiving feast last year for all her law school friends who weren't able to go to their respective homes for the holiday. This Sunday she is planning to have a Mad Men finale dinner party. The idea sounds wonderful and I don't even watch Mad Men. She asked me if I had any tips on cooking polenta, the side she wanted to make to compliment her braised beef. Fortunately polenta is very easy to make so my advice was pretty basic. I'm sure her entire meal will be delicious and the party tons of fun. Unfortunately she is on the opposite coast so I won't be able to make it to said party, but it did get me thinking about polenta and how delicious it is.
Made with ground corn, polenta is a whole grain that is good for you and also quick cooking. The cooking time really depends on how loose you want the polenta. I like a creamy, porridge consistency which only takes about 5 minutes once the stock comes to a boil. You can also cook it for longer, letting it set, to cut wedges out for a firmer polenta cake. It is a great side to compliment a full flavor main course, like braised beef, or works great under any type of sauce such as tomato, bolognese, or a ratatouille.  I went with just a simple side dish of polenta flavored with Parmesan cheese. Light, creamy and easy to make, polenta is definitely a useful side dish to add to your repertoire.

Parmesan Polenta (4 side-dish servings)
  • 3 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup polenta
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan, plus additional for garnish
  • Salt and pepper
Bring stock to a boil in a medium saucepan.
Turn heat to low and slowly pour in polenta, stirring to incorporate.
Continue stirring as polenta thickens, cooking for about 5 minutes for creamy polenta, longer for a thicker consistency.
Stir frequently to avoid any lumps.
Remove from heat and stir in butter and Parmesan cheese.
Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. It might not need any salt depending on saltiness of stock and Parmesan, so taste first. Definitely add about 1/8-1/4 tsp black pepper.
Serve garnished with additional Parmesan, if desired.

For a printable recipe click here

Easy Parmesan Polenta

Friday, October 15, 2010

Shrimp and Avocado over Wilted Arugula

I found myself with the dilemma last night of leftover produce in my fridge but a desire to eat something different. With a hefty amount of arugula and basil, my first instinct was to make pesto. The two greens go great together and, add a few toasted walnuts or almonds, you've got a great pesto on your hands. However, I have made a lot of pesto recently. Traditional basil, cilantro and even a corn pesto have all made their way into my meals over the past few weeks. It's not that I don't love pesto--because clearly I do--it's just that I wanted to use that arugula in a different way. I wanted to mellow out that peppery bite without losing it altogether. And I wanted to use it as a background for a lot of other delicious flavors.
 I thought in terms of a salad; the good kind of salad where the lettuce is mostly used as a bed to hold a bunch of other great ingredients. And when mixed together, you have bites full of lots of different flavors as opposed to just a lot of lettuce. That's my kind of salad. So this is what I came up with. A simple sauteed mix of sweet shrimp, juicy tomatoes and meaty mushrooms. And then to finish it off I added that peppery arugula and creamy avocado.  Full of color, full of flavor and definitely not your everyday salad. The warm shrimp wilt the arugula, taking away some of the bite and turning it into a cross between a sauteed green and a lettuce. Chicken could be substituted for the shrimp but I would saute it separately and then toss everything together at the end. This salad makes for a great, healthy meal with some toasted bread or pita points.

Shrimp and Avocado over Wilted Arugula (serves 4)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 4-5 oz mushrooms, sliced (I used baby bellas)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
  • 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 2 tbsp lemon juice, divided, from 1 lemon
  • 4 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
  • 4-5 cups arugula
  • 1 avocado, peeled, pitted and cubed
  • Salt and pepper
Heat 1 tbsp of olive oil in a large saute pan over medium heat.
Saute mushrooms until they begin to brown, about 5-8 minutes.
Add garlic, season with about 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper, and saute for another minute.
Add cherry tomatoes, stirring to combine, and cook until soft, about 5 minutes.
Add shrimp and cook until fully pink, another 8 minutes or so.
Toward the end of cooking, add lemon zest, 1 tbsp of lemon juice, and 2 tbsp of basil.
If there's a lot of liquid in the pan, drain some off before adding the shrimp to the arugula. 
In a large bowl, toss together arugula, sauteed shrimp mixture, and avocado.
Season with remaining olive oil, lemon juice, basil and a pinch more salt and pepper.

For a printable recipe click here

Shrimp and Avocado Over Wilted Arugula

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Gluten Free Bread: Good Enough for Any Bread Lover

I am currently in my second week of eating entirely gluten free. I have not been diagnosed with Celiac, fortunately, but it does run in my family and there's a good chance that I'm gluten intolerant. My experiment is to see if eating gluten free for a month helps alleviate some health problems I've dealt with for many years. None of this is incredibly serious, so no need to worry. I debated even sharing this because, as of now, eating gluten free is not what my blog is about. There are a lot of great gluten free blogs out there but mine is more about recipes for every day using common ingredients. For the most part, you probably wouldn't have even noticed that I'm eating gluten free. My last few posts have all been recipes that just naturally contain no gluten.
Eating gluten free sounds a lot more intimidating than it actually is. Most natural foods don't have gluten in them. The things you have to watch out for are processed foods but there are plenty of great brands out there making everything from pancake mixes to chips to brownies, all without any gluten. I certainly don't recommend going gluten free if you don't need to, but if you do have an allergy--as many people do--there are a lot of options of great things to eat without feeling like you've given up a major part of your life.
Sandwich on gluten free bread: Recipe to come
I'm sharing this with you because I really wanted to write about a gluten free bread recipe that I made from the new cookbook out by Gluten Free Girl and the Chef. I figured I needed to explain myself before including a recipe for bread that uses millet flour and almond flour and a thing called xanthan gum. Bread was one thing I was really sad to even think about giving up. I love bread. And this bread is so good that even someone who can eat gluten would love it. Gavin, for one, thought it was great and probably wouldn't have known it was any different from most breads had I not told him. So I realize this recipe won't be a must-make for a lot of you but if you know someone with Celiac or with gluten-intolerance, pass it along. They will thank you, I promise. I also wanted to include this recipe on my blog in honor of my aunt and a good family friend who both have Celiac. Hopefully a great bread recipe will make their lives a little fuller. Because a life completely without bread would be a sad one indeed.
I recommend making the millet, oat and almond flours in the food processor using millet (a small cereal grain), whole oats and blanched almonds. The entire recipe could actually be made in the food processor by first grinding the three flours, in the order above, and then adding the rest of the ingredients and mixing with the dough blade. A stand mixer or by hand would also work. Weighing the flours is the best way to ensure the correct ratio of flours but volume measurements are also included if you don't have a scale.

Gluten Free Bread
  • 1 1/4 cups (8 oz) potato starch
  • 1 1/4 cups (3.5 oz) almond flour
  • 2/3 cup (3 oz) oat flour
  • 1/2 cup (3 oz) millet flour
  • 1 tbsp active dry yeast
  • 3 tsp xanthan gum
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/3 cups warm water (110F)
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/6 cup canola oil
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • Extra canola oil for oiling bowl
Sift together potato starch, almond flour, oat flour, and millet flour.
Add yeast, xanthan gum and salt, stirring to combine.
Pour the warm water, eggs, canola oil, and honey into the dry ingredients. Mix until the dough has fully come together. Mine looked like very thick pancake batter but it looks more like bread dough after it rises.
Put the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a clean cloth. Let it rise for about 2 hours, until it has doubled in size.
Preheat the oven to 500F. Divide the dough into two oval shaped loaves and make three small cuts on the top of the dough. Cook the bread either directly on a pizza stone or preheat a Dutch oven, line it with parchment paper, and cook the bread in that. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until a thermometer reads 180F and comes out clean.
You could also let the bread rise in an oiled loaf pan for the last hour. Then bake it at 375F for about 45 minutes to make sandwich bread.

For a printable recipe click here

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Mediterranean Baked Fish

Sorrento, Italian coastline. Courtesy of my hubs
I love all sorts of ethnic food. How cool is it that you can sit in your own kitchen/living room/dining room and enjoy the tastes of Japan, India, Mexico, anywhere really? I know it doesn't make up for not actually being there but unfortunately most of us cannot jet off to Japan when we want authentic sushi or Thailand for really good pad Thai. Although I love the spiciness of real Mexican food and the combination of sweet/salty/sour flavors in many Asian dishes, my favorite region for food is definitely the Mediterranean. I might even say that my everyday food is actually Mediterranean based and everything else stems from there. I say Mediterranean because I don't mean just Italian or Spanish or Greek. But the foods I love most, and the ways of preparing them, come from these countries.
One of my favorite things about the food in Florence when I lived there as an undergrad was how simple everything was but still so incredibly delicious. The key to those dishes, and most things made in that region of the world, is the quality of the ingredients. If you use the very best fresh mozzarella and tomatoes only when they're in season you will get a pizza that is unlike any other. Not to mention those incredibly hot wood burning ovens they use, but that's a different subject altogether. No matter where I ate, in Florence and throughout the Mediterranean, it didn't matter if the restaurant was a tiny cafe with only a bar and a few small tables or a fine dining restaurant with their own wine cellar, everywhere used only fresh, whole ingredients that were in season. The seafood was caught locally, the cheese made by a nearby farm and the herbs were probably picked from the chef's personal garden. Part of this is due to the wonderful climate of the Mediterranean--another reason why I love it, of course. They are blessed with warm temperatures and warm waters that produce great food almost year round.
I don't necessarily want to pack up and move to Italy or Spain--although, believe me, I have definitely thought about it--but I do try to bring some of those flavors and values into my own kitchen. For me, there are few things better than ripe summer tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and hand-picked basil, but only when they are actually in season. Try a caprese salad in the winter with hard, tasteless tomatoes and you'll want to cry. Or I do anyway. My point is, if you take a few simple ingredients and treat them with care, you can almost always produce a delicious meal. Those who live in the Mediterranean have also created some of the perfect combinations of flavors, which I've played with in a number of my recipes. The aforementioned tomato and basil combo is always a great one; as is tomatoes, feta and cucumbers; lemon, basil, and Parmesan is another one (think pesto, yum); and not to leave out the Spanish, what about the delicious salty sweet combo of prosciutto and melon.
I could go on and on. But instead, I will leave you with a super simple fish recipe that is inspired by some Mediterranean flavors and the wonderful value of spending more time eating, drinking good wine and enjoying life than doing dishes. Because everything is wrapped up in foil, all you do is throw it out when you're done, with little to no clean up needed after eating. I used catfish for my baked fish as it was fresh that day but any white fish would work: cod, flounder, grouper. Just adjust the cooking time based on the thickness of the fish.

Mediterranean Baked Fish (serves 4)

  • 4 fish fillets, 4-6 oz each
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
  • 1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
  • 6-8 large basil leaves, torn
  • 3-4 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 tbsp (or more) olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350F.
Tear a large sheet of aluminum foil and lay it on a baking sheet with each side folded up to catch any liquid.
Place each fillet on the foil; they can be touching but don't overlap.
Season each fillet with salt and pepper.
Squeeze the lemon juice over the fillets.
Drain the tomatoes, removing as much of the extra liquid as possible.
Spread them over the fish and add garlic, basil and thyme.
Pour olive oil over everything and season with a bit more salt and pepper.
Tear another large sheet of aluminum foil.
Place it over the fish and seal each edge by tightly folding the aluminum foil.
The baking sheet is to catch any accidental drips but most of the liquid should stay in the foil pouch.
Bake the fish until it is opaque throughout and flakes easily, about 20 minutes for thin catfish and up to 30 or 35 for thicker grouper or cod.
Remove the top layer of foil carefully, discard the garlic cloves and thyme stems.
Serve each fillet with a portion of tomatoes and basil on top.
Garnish with additional chopped basil if desired.

For a printable recipe click here

Mediterranean Baked Catfish

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sweet Potato Soup

Last Saturday's farmers' market had the feel of a fair or a street festival. The sun was shining and people came out in droves. Kids were running around on the grass, adults were enjoying samples from Chef Dave Alworth of Guglhupf, and local musicians were playing their tunes for anyone passing by. Despite being a full week into the month of October, the weather was more reminiscent of late spring or early summer with temperatures near the 90's. You would have had a difficult time convincing anyone that it is in fact fall here in Durham.
Photo courtesy of
Unless you took a close look at the produce available at many of the market's vendors. Sure there was the occasional basket of zucchini, fresh corn and summer tomatoes, all evidence of the long summer season we are blessed with in North Carolina. But more abundant were the baskets of winter squash: pumpkins of all sizes, acorn squash, butternut squash, you name it. Root vegetables joined the mix with some beets and turnips and, one of my personal favorites, the sweet potato. I love the flavors of fall and sweet potatoes embody the season better than almost any other food. They are delicious when mashed and whipped, a perfect side dish at Thanksgiving. They pair wonderfully with the fall/winter spices of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. They are naturally sweet all by themselves but are even sweeter when candied or baked into a pie. And despite their sweetness, they are actually incredibly good for you. They are full of Vitamins A & C, beta carotene and dietary fiber. But feel free to leave that out when you serve them to friends or kids. Just let them enjoy how delicious they are.

This soup is certainly no exception. It plays off the natural sweetness of the sweet potatoes by adding the spicy bite of fresh ginger and a touch of cayenne pepper. The peanuts on top not only add a crunch that contrasts with the smoothness of the pureed soup but also adds a salty note to balance out the heat. This soup would be perfect for a cool night in fall or winter but if the warm weather comes back, I promise it still tastes like fall even if it feels like summer outside. This soup would make a great starter or serve it as dinner like I did with a sauteed vegetable and toasted crusty bread.

Sweet Potato Soup (Serves 4)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cup chopped)
  • 2 tbsp ginger, peeled and chopped (from a 2 inch piece)
  •  3 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1/4 tsp nutmeg
  • Pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped (4-5 cups chopped)
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • 1/4 cup dry roasted peanuts, roughly chopped
Heat oil in a large soup pot over medium heat.
Saute onion and ginger for 5-8 minutes, until onion is soft and translucent.
Add carrots and season with cumin, nutmeg, cayenne, salt and pepper; saute for another 3-4 minutes until spices are fragrant.
Add sweet potatoes, stirring to combine.
Pour in enough stock to just cover the vegetables.
Bring the soup to a simmer and cover, cooking until the vegetables are very tender, about 15 minutes.
Remove the soup from the heat and allow to cool slightly. Puree the entire pot either with an immersion blender or, in batches, in a food processor.
If the pureed soup is too thick, add a bit more stock.
Adjust the seasoning if necessary and reheat slightly if soup cooled significantly.
Serve garnished with 1 tbsp of peanuts.

For a printable recipe click here

Sweet Potato and Ginger Soup