Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Lentil Soup with Balsamic Roasted Vegetables

I tend to forget about lentils when I'm thinking of things to cook. I'm not sure why I forget about them because they are delicious and one of my favorite bases for vegetarian cooking. But they just haven't made their way on to my mental rolodex, yet. I love lentil soup, curried lentils, lentils and rice, all of which I've ordered off of various menus. But why wait to eat them at a restaurant - and pay a lot more - when I can easily make them at home? So when I ran across a Cooking Light list of winter recipes, I knew I had to try the ones with lentils. So in the past week, I have made two different lentil dishes, both of which I will be sharing with you. If you're not familiar with lentils, I definitely recommend giving them a try. They are packed with protein and other great nutrients, making them a perfect base for any vegetarian meal. Although I love meat and often cook all types of meat at home, I do like to include one or two vegetarian meals during the week, both for the health benefits and the environmental impact, but I won't bore you with you my philosophies on these things.
Regardless of how you feel about meat or non-meat dishes, lentils are hearty and satisfying and great for cold weather meals. This soup combines the heartiness of lentils with the tangy, sweetness of balsamic roasted root vegetables. Feel free to play around with which root vegetables you use, depending on what's in season and what you like. I used sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots but turnips or butternut squash would also work well. The flavors in this soup only get better the longer it sits, so make a big batch and save some for leftovers, or make it a day ahead and reheat right before serving.

Lentil Soup with Balsamic Roasted Vegetables (serves 4, with leftovers)

  • 2 tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar, divided
  • 1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cubed
  • 2-3 parsnips, peeled and sliced
  • 2-3 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1/2 tsp salt, divided (or to taste)
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper, divided (or to taste)
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/4 cup dried lentils (I used French lentils)
  • 6 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (or chicken broth)
  • 1 bunch Swiss chard, stems removed and leaves chopped
Preheat oven to 375°. 
In a 9 x 13 pan, toss together 1 tbsp olive oil, 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, chopped sweet potatoes, parsnips and carrots. Season with 1/4 tsp salt, and 1/8 tsp black pepper.
Roast vegetables until tender, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
While vegetables are roasting, heat remaining 1 tbsp olive oil in a large dutch oven or soup pot over medium heat.
Saute onions until soft and lightly golden, about 10 minutes.
Add garlic, thyme and remaining 1 tbsp balsamic vinegar. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Cook for another minute.
Pour in wine, scraping up any bits off the bottom of the pan.
Add lentils and 4 cups of broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until lentils are tender 30-45 minutes (depends on type of lentils, check lentil package for more information).
Remove cover and add roasted vegetables and remaining 2 cups of broth. Simmer uncovered for another 15 minutes.
Stir in Swiss chard and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes.
Season with remaining salt and pepper, if needed.

For a printable recipe click here

Friday, January 21, 2011

Slow Cooked Chicken and Rice Soup

I am happy to report that we are now able to enjoy all of the deliciously hot water we want, thanks to some very hard working people at the gas company. We only suffered through about a week of no hot water, but if you have ever shared a similar fate, you know that that week seems to take forever. But for the past week or so, we've been enjoying hot showers, a functioning dish washer, and a much easier method of hand washing dishes. But even with hot water, it's sometimes nice to make an entire meal that involves very little clean up. Entire meals that can be made in one pot are great for when you want something satisfying and simple. One way to get a great meal with minimal effort is through the use of the slow cooker. This is not a gadget I've spent a lot of time with, but I do have one and it certainly helps to make an easy dinner. The best part about a slow cooker is that, once you have the chopping and measuring done, all you have to do is press a button and forget about it. These meals are especially great if you have some time in the morning to get things prepared, so then it can cook all day and be ready to go when you want to have dinner. You could also prep everything the night before and simply pour it all together and hit the on switch in the morning. It's such a wonderful feeling to come home after a day of work or errands or school and know that dinner is already waiting for you. And as far as clean up goes, you probably will only have a knife, cutting board and the slow cooker pot. Doesn't get much easier than that. If you don't have a slow cooker, this soup could easily be made on the stove in a large soup pot with a lid. Set the soup on the lowest heat possible and cook for an hour or two, as opposed to 6-8 for the slow cooker. It's best to stir occasionally if the pot is on the stove since you do run the risk of burning the bottom. But it is still a relatively painless and easy to make soup, either way.
Chicken and rice soup is a great alternative to chicken noodle soup, especially for those of us who are gluten-free. But even for the noodle lovers out there, pasta can get overly mushy and fall apart when left in liquid too long. Brown rice, on the other hand, holds up nicely and only gets more flavorful the longer it's in the soup. And don't worry, chicken and rice soup can cure as many ailments as the classic bowl of chicken and noodle. (Note: I am not a doctor and don't actually know if soup cures anything, but I do know it tastes good.) The soup is also full of low fat chicken and healthy vegetables, making it a great dish if you aren't feeling well or even if you just want something healthy to balance out all the cookies and pies from the holidays.

Slow Cooked Chicken and Rice Soup (serves 4-6)
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 3-4 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 3-4 celery stalks, chopped
  • 2.5 - 3 cups mixed vegetables (I used broccoli and cauliflower florets)
  • 1 cup brown rice
  • 3 cups cooked chicken, chopped (I used 2 large chicken breasts)
  • 1 cup water
  • 6-7 cups low sodium chicken stock
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, or 1 tsp dried
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
Combine all vegetables, brown rice and chicken in the pot of a slow cooker.
Pour in 1 cup water and enough chicken stock to fully cover everything.
Season with bay leaf, thyme, salt and pepper.
Cover and cook on low heat for 6-8 hours. This just gets better the longer you cook it.
Season with a bit more salt and pepper if needed.

For a printable recipe click here

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Osso Buco with Pine Nut Gremolata

Sometimes you just want to do something extra for dinner. Step out of the weeknight dinner mode and really make something special. A special occasion dinner will take a little longer and might cost a bit more, but it's definitely worth it when the time comes. And any dinner you make at home will be less expensive than a similar dinner at a restaurant and usually means more to whoever gets to enjoy the dinner with you. Birthdays, anniversaries, promotions, all are great reasons to take the time to make something you wouldn't normally cook. In my case, this dinner was a thank you to my parents for a great holiday trip to Mexico. I figure if they want to take me and Gavin down to Mexico for an awesome vacation, the least I can do is take the time to make a great dinner and pair it with some really nice wine. And since I not only made the dinner but also got to eat it, I definitely think I lucked out on the exchange. But nonetheless, I wanted to at least show a small token of my appreciation.
Thanks to some great advice from a coworker, I decided to make Osso Buco, a classic Italian comfort food that is often served around the holidays here in the states. The veal slowly cooks in a rich, savory sauce of tomatoes and stock, making it so tender it just falls of the bone. It's hearty and satisfying and perfect for a meal during the cold winter months. The simple gremolata served on top adds just the right amount of freshness and crunch to the dish. Serve it over pasta or brown rice and you've got a show-stopping dish. Combine the Osso Buco with a rich Amarone and you've got a serious feast on your hands. This lush, velvety red wine from Veneto, Italy pairs perfectly with the hearty dish and makes the meal itself worth celebrating.

Osso Buco (serves 6)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 whole veal shank, about 3.5-4 lbs
  • 1 onion, diced, about 2 cups
  • 3-4 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 3-4 celery stalks, sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, crushed and peeled
  • 3 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, about 15-20 thyme sprigs, stems discarded
  • 1 x 28 oz can plum tomatoes
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 4 cups veal or chicken stock 
  • Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Heat oil in a large, oven proof dutch oven over medium to medium-high heat.
Season veal shank liberally with salt and pepper (about 1.5-2 tsp salt, 1 tsp pepper).
Brown veal in hot oil for about 4 minutes per side.
Remove veal and set aside.
Turn heat down slightly and saute onion, carrots, celery and garlic till soft and slightly browned, about 10 minutes.
Add fresh thyme, tomatoes, wine and stock. Break up tomatoes with a spoon.
Return the veal shank to the pot. Make sure the liquid comes up about half way on the shank. If not, add more stock. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Cover the dutch oven with a tight fitting lid, or aluminum foil, and place on the middle rack in the oven.
Cook the veal for about 2.5-3 hours or until meat pulls away easily with a fork.
Remove the lid from the pot and cook for another 30 minutes to allow the sauce to reduce.
To serve, either remove the bone and pull the meat apart into chunks, or place the entire shank onto a separate platter and slice meat, serving the sauce alongside. Pass gremolata as a garnish.

Pine Nut Gremolata
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts 
  • Zest from 1 lemon
  • 1 bunch Italian parsley, stems removed and leaves chopped
  • Salt and pepper
In a small, dry skillet, toast pine nuts until golden and fragrant, being careful not to burn them.
Combine chopped parsley, lemon zest and cooled pine nuts. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.

For a printable recipe click here

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Asparagus and Herb Pesto Pasta

Some days, in the middle of winter, when I feel like there is no end in sight, I crave the fresh, light tastes of summer. Sure by the end of August or September, I start to get tired of zucchini, yellow squash, and asparagus every night of the week. I look forward to the earthy, heartier root vegetables available in fall and winter. And don't get me wrong, I still love those vegetables and all of the comfort they bring during the cold winter months. But there are times in the winter when I want a taste of something green and fresh. Something that reminds me of the warm spring and summer months.
This simple pasta dish is full of bright, fresh tastes and colors. The sweetness of the peas and the slight crunch of the asparagus goes perfectly with the fresh herbs in the creamy pesto and the salty feta cheese. Everything cooks in one large pot of boiling water and the pesto whips up in no time in a food processor or blender. I will definitely be making this again when asparagus really is in season come early summertime. But for now, I will take a little help from the grocery store to invoke those flavors of warm weather and long days.

Side note: I realize when I write, I sound like I must live in Alaska or the frozen tundra, but no, I just live in NC where our winters are quite mild. However, I strongly detest cold weather and therefore blow any amount of coldness way out of proportion. Just wanted you to know that I am aware of this personal trait. :)

Asparagus and Herb Pesto Pasta (2 dinner servings, or 4 side dish servings)

  • 1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 2 inch pieces
  • 1 cup green peas (frozen is fine)
  • 8 oz pasta
  • 1 bunch fresh basil, about 1.5-2 cups loosely packed
  • 1 bunch fresh mint, about 1 cup
  • 3/4 cup feta cheese
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season with about 1 tbsp salt.
Boil asparagus for 4-6 minutes, until crisp tender. After 2 minutes, add peas. Remove vegetables with a slotted spoon and put into a large bowl.
Return water to a boil and add pasta. Cook until al dente, according to package directions. Drain pasta, reserving 1 cup of pasta water. Add pasta to vegetables.
While pasta is cooking, Combine basil, mint and feta in a food processor or blender. Pulse to combine.
Stream in about 1/3 cup olive oil to make a thick paste. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Feta is quite salty on its own, so only a little is needed.
Toss pasta and vegetables in pesto sauce, using a splash of pasta water if too thick. Check seasoning.
Garnish with remaining feta cheese.

For a printable recipe click here
Adapted from

Monday, January 10, 2011

Roasted Pork Loin with Fennel and Tomatoes

I'm sad to report that our beautiful new home currently has absolutely no hot water. The previous water heater sputtered it's last ounce of hot water early Thursday morning after leaking far too much water onto the ground for anyone's good. So, alas, we are without hot water during what will probably (hopefully!) be the coldest week of the winter. However, we are very fortunate to have parents near by with plenty of hot water to spare and a furnace that is working wonderfully to keep our house nice and toasty. So other than freezing cold hands, we are doing ok. The most challenging part for us, I believe, is the lack of hot water in the kitchen for washing dishes, which in turn means that our dishwasher does not work. Therefore, we are forced to wash everything by hand with water we have boiled on the stove. Very old school indeed. While many saner folk would probably opt for take-out on disposable dishes or eating out so someone else can wash the dishes, we plug on and are determined to cook as usual. Although Gavin usually does most of the dishwashing - since I do all the cooking - we are sharing the task now that everything has to be handwashed. But fear not! Like I said, I am still cooking and will therefore be sharing some fun new recipes.
I've been alternating recently between wanting hearty comfort food to fend off the cold and then lighter meals to pretend like it might some day get warm again. I wholeheartedly believe that what you cook and what you eat can effect your overall mood and your outlook on the day. So if you're feeling chilled to the bone and in need of warm blanket or hug, make something hot and satisfying that will not only warm you up as you're making it, but keep you warm after the dinner has been eaten and put away. This pork with fennel and tomatoes will make you warm and satisfied without weighing you down. Pork tenderloin is a very lean cut of meat and the vegetables are full of all of those great nutrients that help keep your body going and hopefully ward off that inevitable cold. To add another layer of comfort to this dish, serve the pork over rice or pasta. That way you have somewhere to catch all of the delicious sauce from the juicy tomatoes and white wine.

Roasted Pork Loin with Fennel and Tomatoes (Serves 4)
  • 1 pork tenderloin (about 1.5 lbs)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large fennel bulb
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved if large
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
Preheat oven to 350F.
Rinse off pork tenderloin and pat dry.
Combine minced garlic, cumin, cayenne pepper, thyme leaves, salt and pepper.
Rub the mixture all over the pork. Set aside to come to room temperature, about 20 minutes.
Heat oil in a large dutch oven (any oven proof pan will work) over medium heat.
Sear pork on all sides, about 3-4 minutes per side.
Cut the green tops from the fennel bulb. Reserve about 4 tbsp fennel fronds and discard the rest.
Cut the fennel bulb into quarters from top to bottom. On a diagonal, cut out the core from each quarter. Thinly slice the fennel bulb and chop the fronds.
Once pork is seared, add sliced fennel, fennel fronds and tomatoes to the pot. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Put pot, uncovered, into the oven and cook pork to desire doneness. For medium rare, the thermometer will read 135-140, about 25 minutes.
Put the pot back on the stove and remove pork. Let the pork rest while finishing the sauce.
Over medium heat, add wine to fennel and tomatoes.
Scrape up any herbs on the bottom of the pot and allow to simmer until reduced by half, about 5-8 minutes. Adjust seasoning if necessary.
Slice pork and serve with the sauce.

For a printable recipe click here.

Roasted Pork Loin With Fennel and Tomatoes

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Herb Crusted Steak with Wine and Mushroom Reduction

Some things are just meant to go together: peanut butter and jelly, Batman and Robin, Oreos and milk, Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippin. You get the idea. And near the top of this perfect pairing list, or possibly at the top depending on who you ask, is steak and red wine. The two are just meant to be consumed together. They are both delicious in their own right, don't get me wrong. But something magical happens when they are together. The steak draws out the earthy richness of the wine while the wine elevates the buttery, melt in your mouth quality of a good steak. Add a simple mushroom sauce to the steak and you have all sorts of umami going on in your mouth. There is something incredibly satisfying about flavors that are so connected to the Earth. No one wants their food to actually taste like dirt, of course, but hearty earthy flavors have some of the same soul-satisfying qualities as getting your hands dirty planting a garden or building something. Not that I do much of either of those things - although I will have a vegetable garden one of these days! - I can imagine what that would feel like. So for now, I'll get my soul satisfaction through delicious steak paired with the perfect glass of red wine.
However delicious steak and red wine may be, it's not the sort of thing I would want to eat every day. (Gavin might disagree but that's another story.) Part of its appeal, for me at least, is that steak is a special occasion sort of thing. I'm not talking about beef in general, or meat for that matter, but really good steak deserves special attention. This year for our Christmas Eve dinner, I made my family Filet Mignon with red wine and mushroom sauce paired with an excellent Bordeaux from the St. Emilion region. Chateau Rocher Corbin produces a delicious red wine full of rich flavors, blending Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. The dark and earthy berry flavors went perfectly with the steaks, seasoned with fresh rosemary and thyme. Although this meal is definitely worthy of a special occasion, it isn't at all difficult to prepare. A few really good quality ingredients will do most of the work for you. And feel free to ask a friendly wine person (at Wine Authorities perhaps?) for suggestions on a perfect pairing for your steak meal.

Herb Crusted Steak with Wine and Mushroom Reduction (serves 4)

  • 4 x 6 oz Filet Mignon (or your preferred cut of beef or size of steak)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tsp salt 
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 2 tbsp fresh rosemary, finely diced
  • 2 tbsp fresh thyme, finely diced
  • 1/2 white onion, diced
  • 12 oz sliced mushrooms (I prefer cremini but button also works)
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine (something you would drink, but save the really good stuff for the meal)
Pat steaks dry and allow to come to room temperature before cooking; cold meat = tough meat.
Heat oil in a large pan or grill pan over medium to medium high heat.
Season steaks liberally with salt and pepper. Combine fresh herbs and divide among the four steaks. Press the herbs into the meat to stick.
Sear the first side of the steak for 3-4 minutes. Turn the heat down to medium, medium-low and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
Flip the steaks and continue cooking till desired doneness. For medium rare, the steak should be about 125-130F.
After you have flipped the steaks, add the onions to the pan to begin sauteing while the meat finishes cooking.
Remove the steaks when they are done and allow to rest while finishing the sauce.
Add the mushrooms to the pan and saute for 6-8 minutes to brown. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper.
Deglaze the pan with the red wine, scraping up any of the herbs left in the pan.
Simmer the sauce until the wine has reduced by half.
Serve the mushroom sauce alongside the steaks and pour yourself a glass of red wine.

For a printable recipe click here