Monday, January 30, 2012

Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells

Meals like this rule the winter dining scene in our house.  Baked pasta dishes are the epitome of comfortable food.  There's also the added bonus of having easy leftovers- they'll last a few days in the fridge and like most pasta dishes freeze well for lunch next week or month.  Don't want leftovers? Halve the recipe.  Hey how's that one guy who rarely ate carbs like pasta and bread? Oh yeah, he's dead.  Need a pizza recipe

The streak wasn't planned or wished for, it was a pure accident.  I have no idea how the meal plans lined up in such a fashion, but this dish of spinach and ricotta stuffed shells was smack dab in the middle of 5 days of unintentional vegetarianism.  No beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, lamb, or anything else that takes dumps for 5 days.  As soon as I figured out what was happening I did not fight the urge to sear a juicy hamburger in a very hot cast-iron skillet, let it rest for 5 minutes while toasting a sesame seed bun, then topped it with caramelized onion, Gorgonzola and a drizzle of balsamic reduction.  I'm pretty sure I was growling as the juice ran off my chin.  Unintentional vegetarianism is a dangerous thing and is not advised at any time for a normal adult on the North American continent.  Once a week or so however, is perfectly safe and can even be healthy for you and your wallet.  Meatless Mondays is what the TV food people are naming it.  I call it an option, just not for more than 3 consecutive days...I enjoy my placement in the food chain.  If you want to stay on the meat train, brown some ground beef or turkey, drain, let cool and fold into stuffing mixture.

Are you tired of opening those tomato paste cans and only needing half of it? You know they only last a couple days in the fridge, even covered with foil.  I'm not about to try and freeze that, I'd never see it again.   Buy the double-strength paste in the tube, it's good quality, no waste, and is easier to measure.

Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells
4-6 servings

15-18 pasta shells, about 12 oz.
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1 heaping TB tomato paste
2 C marinara, store-bought or homemade
8 oz frozen spinach, thawed and drained, or 12 oz. fresh spinach wilted for two minutes
8 oz ricotta cheese, whole milk/full fat preferred
1/2 C Parmesan cheese, the good stuff of course
1 large egg yolk
2 C mozzarella, freshly shredded preferred
1 TB parsley, chopped

Cook pasta shells in salted boiling water until just al dente, drain and coat with a touch of oil to keep them from sticking together. Fire up the oven to 350F.

Put a few TBs EVOO in a medium skillet over medium heat.  Add onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for thirty seconds while stirring- burnt garlic does not taste good.  Introduce about 1 TB of tomato paste, stir for one minute, then add the marinara sauce and mix well.  Season with S&P and remove from heat after 5 minutes of a light simmer. 

In a medium bowl, add the ricotta, egg yolk, parsley, parmesan, and spinach.  Season with a pinch of S&P, mix well.  Stuff the shells with this mixture and place in a baking dish.  Layer the marinara sauce evenly over the shells, then cover with the mozzarella.  A bit of extra parm wouldn't hurt.  Bake uncovered for about 25 minutes, until nice and bubbly.  If you'd like to brown the cheese more, employ the broiler on hi for ~5 minutes.  Garnish with some parsley and after cooling for a few minutes, cut into portions.  A green salad, some garlic bread, and a glass of Barolo, Barbera or Chianti would get along very well with this dish.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Slow Cooker BBQ Pulled Chicken

Without a doubt the best baker I've ever known was my Dad's mom.  I was told she was a hell of a cook too, I was a little young to fully understand her culinary talent.  She could take the ass end of anything and turn it into a delicious meal.  A few veggies from the garden (or the pantry, in winter, as preserving food was necessity) and you've got dinner and a well-fed family on a budget.  Her cinnamon rolls were literally famous, known to us as Gramma buns.  People have tried to knock them off before and although they were good, hers were off the charts.  Sitting in Grandma's kitchen with a couple of those rolls and some strong black coffee, playing cards for a penny a hand, I was 8 going on 18, a memory permanently stained in my brain.  One day I'll get around to giving it a go...I think the secret might have been an overnight fermentation with the dough?? Until then, here's a simple but very tasty bbq sauce from her recipe box.  If you don't like the heat, halve the amount of chili flakes.

This recipe is quite similar to the pulled pork, just a different animal.  A much cheaper cut too, if you use thighs...I never buy chicken breasts, they are first of all expensive and secondly don't have as much taste as other parts.  You could buy and roast a 4 lb chicken vs. purchasing 3 skinless, boneless breasts, have much more meat and bones to make a stock, with a few bucks leftover too.  

Gramma probably used the oven, but a simpler way would be the slow cooker.  You go to work while it does work. 

Slow Cooker BBQ Pulled Chicken
4-6 servings as sammiches

2 C ketchup
3 TB dark brown sugar (or light plus 1 ts molasses)
1 TB soy sauce
1 TB Worcestershire sauce
1 TB Dijon mustard
1 TB cider vinegar
1 ts hot chili flakes
1/2 ts garlic powder
3 large chicken breasts or 4 large thighs, boneless and skinless

hamburger buns

This will take about 6 hours on medium, so use an outlet timer if the work shift keeps you longer than that- a half hour on either end- before and after cooking, will be just fine.  You will heat it back up a bit after shredding anyway, and your temps will remain safe for 30 minutes right out the fridge. 

Add all ingredients except the protein in your slow cooker, stir to mix.  Add in the chicken and turn a few times to coat well.  Put that lid, set it to medium, and come back in about 360 minutes.

Remove chicken pieces and shred with two forks or knives.  There shouldn't be much fat in the cooker if you're using skinless meat, spoon off the fat if present.  Otherwise, shred the chicken and add back to the cooking liquid, stir it all up and let rewarm for 5-10 minutes or so.  You could keep on low for a few hours too, stirring occasionally, if you want to save for halftime. 

Enjoy on some toasted sesame seed buns, coleslaw and pickles would seal the deal. 

Damn now I've used 'off the charts' and 'seal the deal' in the same post...I must have inadvertently watched Guy Fieri or saw a TGI Friday's commercial.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Butterscotch Bars

You may call them blondies, but around my house they were known as butterscotch bars.  I believe they are called blondies as the opposite of brownies.  Brownies are okay, but these cookie bars are my preference.  I'm not in love with chocolate, my sweet tooth is baby small.  You don't see many dessert recipes on BLT.  These bars though, are tasty enough to get an ass-whooping over. 

I'm sure I've been yelled at by my parents many times for eating something, but this one sticks out the most in my memory.  I was 8 or so, plus/minus a couple years.  My Mom baked up a batch of butterscotch bars, and they were perfuming the house with an incredibly delicious odor.  It was the afternoon, and I was told these bars were to be saved for later, and not to eat them.  They were packed in a rectangular plastic tupperware, separated by parchment, cooling uncovered on top of the microwave.  I gave it my best, but I just couldn't resist sneaking one.  I'm sure the heist was ninja-like, and soon I was in the corner of the seldom used family room, hiding behind an armchair savoring my stolen treat, capturing the escaping crumbs trying to act as evidence.  Not long after my last bite the missing cookie bar was noticed, and then me hiding in my secret dessert spot.  I probably didn't think it was worth it while getting my ass paddled, but maybe after a few hours my mind changed.  I can't remember if I was allowed to have any more after my stunt, but I think I got the best one anyway.  

These bars are very easy- it only takes one bowl, a spoon, and a pan.  That's not difficult to handle.  These butterscotch bars are dense and rich, thus the low yield is a perfect amount.  For a crowd, double the recipe and use two 8X8 pans.

Butterscotch Bars
9 pieces

1/2 C unsalted butter, browned
1 C dark brown sugar, packed of course
1 large egg, beaten
1 ts vanilla extract, the good stuff if available
1/2 ts baking powder
1/8 ts baking soda
1 C AP flour
1/2 ts kosher salt
1/3 C butterscotch chips

Fire up the oven to three fifty degrees Fahrenheit.  Butter an 8x8 glass baking dish, lightly dust with flour.  Brown the butter for a couple minutes in a medium skillet, then add to the sugar in a mixing bowl and stir it up.  Stir in the egg and vanilla, then add the dry goods- flour, salt, powder and soda.  Mix well, then sprinkle in the butterscotch chips.  Stir well and spread into the baking dish, using your hand to layer evenly.  Bake in the center of the oven for 20-25 minutes, it will be done when a toothpick inserted at the thickest part comes out clean.  Let cool an hour or so and then cut into 9 bars.  Best at room temp the same day, although will keep for a few days at room temp, can also be frozen.  It's up to you if you want to hide behind a chair while enjoying them.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Mushroom Soup

I'm probably writing this for a minority of readers.  And perhaps minority readers too, I have no idea.  I'm betting most of you out there don't like mushrooms, but maybe you do...this is a food blog, after all. 

It took me a long time before I started to eat mushrooms, and even more time to actually like them.  Their texture was always my dislike, but with proper treatment that is hardly a worry.  Those button mushrooms deep-fried in grease and covered with ranch dressing, that's the only way I would even think about eating one in years past.  If you have an aversion to the texture, you need to cook them properly, which is spread out in a hot pan to sear them, flip, turn down the heat a bit and let cook until softened and lovely, then seasoned with fat and flavor.  Still can't get over your textural difficulties? Puree into a soup and you'll have the absolute essence of mushroom in a convenient liquid form.  A very delicious representation of the powerful shroom.  

Here's a great article on how to properly handle the fungus among us.  

To this day the single dish that my taste buds have enjoyed the most? Hen-of-the-woods mushrooms at Craft in Manhattan.  That dish was expertly prepared and served beautifully.  Paired with an amazing Pinot Noir that tasted like it also grew on a damp log in the forest, I will never forget every single element of that exact moment.  It was like eating dirt, and it was fucking awesome.  And they gave us a muffin for breakfast on our way out the door! 

My everyday mushroom, for slicing thin and eaten raw in salads to sauteing in EVOO is the cremini, or baby bella.  The ground rules- move them to a paper bag, loosely closed, instead of that death-wrap plastic.  They should last a week or so in the fridge.  Clean them off with a damp paper towel before using to remove any visible dirt, a quick rinse is okay to as long as you don't soak them.  And that stem that has been growing in manure? You're gonna want to trim that, unless you eat pieces of shit for breakfast.  For this recipe, a variety of mushrooms will bring you a depth of flavor, I employed the less-often used oyster and some dried shiitakes.  Be sure to rehydrate any dried mushrooms with a bit of water, stock, or wine. 

Mushroom Soup
4 servings as side

1 lb mixed mushrooms, varied to your taste/budget- cremini, oyster, shiitake, chanterelle, trimmed and sliced
3 TB butter
2 medium shallot, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 ts dried thyme or 1 spring fresh
pinch chili pepper flake
1 C chicken or veggie stock (or 2-see below)
pinch S&P
truffle oil/freshly grated nutmeg- optional

If you are using dehydrated mushrooms, follow the package directions to hydrate them properly.  10 minutes in 1 cup of very warm water or stock should do the trick- strain and save the liquid.  If you are skipping this step, add 2 cups of stock.

In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat.  Add the shrooms, spreading them out to get as much fungus touching the hot skillet as possible.  Cook for 2-3 minutes and then stir it up, turning them onto their uncooked sides.  Toss in the shallot, cook for 2-3 more minutes until the mushrooms are nicely browned.  Turn down the heat to medium-low and add the garlic and hot pepper flake.  Stir for one minute to quickly heat the the garlic and toast the flakes.  Add the stock to the party, season to taste with thyme and S&P, stir that all up.  Let simmer for 8-10 minutes, then pour into a bowl or pot and zap with a stick blender, alternatively you could blend this in batches in your blender.  Stick or immersion blenders are so much easier, well worth the $25.  Pour into pre-warmed serving bowls, garnish with a few drops of truffle oil, grated nutmeg, a couple sauteed mushrooms, or perhaps a crouton or two.   

If you'd like to whip out a three-course meal to impress yo date, this soup should be considered as first course.  It's easy as hell and will showcase your skills on the stovetop.  Or, you can make it ahead and warm it up before serving.  

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Broiled Salmon with Brown Sugar,Thyme

Salmon.  If you say you don't like it, perhaps you need a new recipe.  I've got a few here.  The house version is a tasty brown-sugar mustard glaze, but I wanted a different flavor profile this time.  Add in a little heat from the paprika and cayenne but keep the sweetness going of the sugar.  This is so quick, you might spend more time hitting the drive-thru than making this.  Especially if you're this guy.  Whoops!  

Almost every one of my salmon posts mentions the health benefits of human consumption.  Also not surprising I posted an eerily similar recipe almost to the day at the onset of 2011. Speaking of last year, did you not get a good cookbook for Kwanza? This site lists it's favorites, so does Bon Appetit, PBS, and one of my fav mags.  I was fortunate enough to receive what I consider the newest bible- The Cook's Illustrated Cookbook.  Those people are intense, and I like that. 

There are many ways to cook salmon- grill, poach, pan-sear, roast, broil.  When broiling, a new technique I've employed is preheating the skilly to crisp the skin- cause I'm a skin eater.  That's your option. 

Broiled Salmon with Brown Sugar, Thyme
2 servings

2 six oz portions of salmon steaks or fillets, about 1" thick
1/3 C brown sugar, light or dark
1/4 ts freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 ts kosher salt
1 ts dried thyme
1/2 ts smoked paprika, hot or sweet
1/8 ts garlic powder
1/8 ts cayenne pepper

Fire up the oven to four thousand divided by 10.  Toss a 10 or 12" non-stick medium skillet in there to preheat as well.  When the oven is up to temp, take out the skillet with your ove glove and turn on the broiler to high, adjust your rack so your salmon will be about 3" from the heat, which means the rack is about 4" down. 

Your protein is at room temp and the skillet is preheated.  Add all seasonings to a small bowl and mix well.  Gently press onto the flesh side of the salmon, rubbing the mixture on all sides.  Shake off any excess.  Carefully lift and place the fish into the hot skillet and place under the broiler, with the thickest part in the hottest section.  Here's the experts on how to find that out. 

Cook for about 8 minutes, until the flesh is firm and internal temp at the thickest part reads 125F.  Enjoy with your side(s) of choice, plated you will see a lemon risotto with plenty of good parmigiano-reggiano grated in.  The undisputed king of all cheeses, as the orange-clogged slightly trimmer Iron Chef likes to say.    

Monday, January 2, 2012

Baked Shrimp in Tomato Feta Sauce

I'm gettin that annual feeling.  Time to clean things up a bit.  I'm becoming large, slow, lethargic.  Like a hibernating bear, albeit a bear that has a beer fridge, lamb chops, various pig parts, no less than 7 different cheeses from multiple animals.  And a couch and a TV with hundreds of channels.  Too much good wine, fatty cheeses, cannolis, 3 pounds of bacon gone in weeks, cheesy potatoes, cookies, homemade pizzas, a giant eclair cake, and a couple of white russians while bowling.  The Dude abides.  Vegetables lately have been brussels sprouts laden with lardons, cauliflower swimming in cream and blanketed with Gruyere and bread crumbs.  Let's trade in the steaks and pork loins for shrimp and salmon.  First up (accompanied by a large green salad) is the shrimp.

Did you make anything special to start the new year?

Okay, so there's some carbs in the pasta and this is avec fromage, but let's take this slowly.  At least I served over whole-wheat pasta, that's a good start.  This recipe is very quick and easy, as there are not many ingredients please choose them with care.  Some good shrimps are key, you can add some herbs if you like, a splash of quality balsamic might be nice too.  This one is quite simple but tasty, and if your cave is stocked well you always have this at hand, as easily as defrosting the shrimp and opening a can of tomatoes. 

Baked Shrimp in Tomato Feta Sauce
four servings

1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
28 oz can of diced tomato
1/4 C fresh parsley, chopped
1 TB fresh basil, chopped
1 lb medium size shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 oz. feta, crumbled

Fire up the heater to 425F.

In a large oven-proof skillet, cook the onion in EVOO over medium heat until softened, 4-5 minutes.  Add in the garlic and stir for 30 seconds.  Introduce the tomatoes and the juice, bring to a simmer and then reduce the heat to medium-low for 8-10 minutes, until thickened slightly.

Add in the shrimp, basil, parsley, feta, and a pinch of S&P.  Stir well so all the shrimps are layered evenly and place in the oven, cook until pink, about 12 minutes.  You can also cut one of the larger crustaceans open to ensure they are cooked through.  Season to taste if necessary with S&P. 

Serve immediately over pasta or noodles, rice, or on toasted baguette slices.