Wednesday, July 6, 2011

That's what Friends are for

All too often, making dinner becomes a routine that lacks the creativity we need to make it enjoyable for everyone involved. It can be mundane.

Yesterday was one of those nights. I had one more night before I went on my weekly grocery store run, so I was trying to use up what I had in my fridge so in a moment of procrastination, I picked up the phone to call my friend Joan.

We immediately started chatting about what we were planning to do for dinner.  She was going to take the kids to a movie and grab a bite beforehand.  She had nothing in the fridge, so dinner at home was out of the question. Hmmmmm... nothing?  That sounded pretty unlikely to me, so I started to pry about what was in her fridge. Eggs? Yes.  Carrots? No. Cold cuts? Cheese?  As it turns out, she had eggs, cheese, spinach and some leftover ham.  I suggested muffin tin frittatas.  She liked that idea, but ultimately decided to eat out that night.

The significance of this story is not what Joan* did. After all, she still ate out with the kids. The significance is that this conversation helped me to envision a better dinner for my family that night. (It wasn't supposed to be all about me!) In short, I adapted.  I realized I had half a baked sweet potato sitting in the fridge, as well as one chicken and roasted garlic sausage.  So what started out as a very minimal eggs & grits in my head became sweet potato grits with a poached egg along with grilled sausage garnished with freshly cut chives from the garden. I also remembered two cans of Wild Alaskan Salmon in the pantry. That became dinner the following night in the form of Pesto Salmon Cakes coated in cornmeal flour with a spinach salad.

So next time you feel you're in a dinner rut -- even if you think you have a barren fridge -- I suggest you pick up the phone and call Joan. Okay, call one of your friends who's willing to listen. They may not suggest anything helpful at all, but you may be surprised what the process can do on your end. Just talking about it may help you find your way out of the maze of mundane cooking we all find ourselves in from time to time.

Salmon Cakes with Pesto Mayonnaise Coated In Cornmeal Flour with Simple Spinach Salad
Serves four

Four cans of good salmon (preferably Wild Salmon) packed in oil, drained but not rinsed – you need the oil to bind the cakes together.

1/3 cup of pesto mayonnaise (1/3 mayo mixed with two tablespoons of pesto.)
zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons of lemon juice

Cornmeal flour (Bob’s Red Mill has a great one.)
1/4 cup of Canola oil (for lightly frying.)

In a large bowl, mix together the salmon, 1/2 the pesto mayonnaise, lemon juice and zest and lightly season with salt and pepper.

In a shallow bowl pour about two cups of cornmeal flour and set aside. Line a baking pan with wax or parchment paper and set next to the bowl of cornmeal flour.

With a wooden spoon take a good scoop of Salmon mixture out and make a patty.

Place the patty in the cornmeal flour and flip it once to make sure both sides are coated.  Now place the floured patty on your sheet pan.  Repeat this until you have about 8 to 10 patties.

Set the Salmon patties in the refrigerator for at least an hour.  The longer they sit in the fridge, the better chance you have of them not falling apart when you fry them in the pan.

Preheat your oven to 350˚.

Place a 10” non stick skillet on your stove (or cast iron pan if you have one) and heat over medium heat.  Add 1/2 the oil to your pan and wait for it to heat up.  When it starts to spread across the pan, it should be hot enough to cook the Salmon patties in.

When your pan is ready, add the patties and cook them about 3 minutes each side.  Repeat until all the patties are cooked adding more oil if needed.  Place them on a sheet pan and bake for 7 minutes.  Remember, you are not fully frying them so resist putting more oil in the pan than you need.

Patties will be a light golden brown when ready.  Serve two patties per person with Spinach salad and remaining pesto mayo.

Spinach Salad
4 handfuls of baby spinach (I buy the washed variety)
1 tsp. of Dijion mustard
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of good red wine vinegar (Trader Joe’s red wine vinegar is my favorite.)

Mix mustard, olive oil and red wine vinegar in a bowl.  Season with salt and pepper and then toss with Spinach.  Serve with Salmon Cakes.

Other quick dinner tricks
For simple muffin tin Frittata's:  Pre-heat oven to 350˚.  In a food processor, pulse  together 1/2 tsp. salt, 6 egg whites, six eggs, 1/2 cup of grated cheese (my fave is Gruyere) and 4 oz. of steamed spinach.  Butter muffin tins (med. tin should hold 12 muffins) and pour in egg mixture almost to the top.  Bake for 15 min. turning tins once.  You can substitute, sautéed mushrooms, or peppers and onions for spinach.  Simple and freezes well.  :-)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

When Life Hands You a Big Bowl of Lemons and Some Chicken

When I think of summer, I immediately think of lemons.  Fresh, tangy, and light; when I hold a lemon I can almost feel the warmth of the sun.

Most Americans think of lemons in sweets. Think lemonade, lemon meringue pie, lemon bars. Lemons should also be thought of as a savory component to a dish. We have Morocco to thank for Tagines that highlight preserved lemons. Likewise, the Iranians make a stew using dried lemons. (Khoresht Ghormeh Sabzii - Herb & Vegetable Stew.)  My summer favorite though, is my version of the Silver Palate's Lemon Chicken.

I've been making Lemon Chicken for years. Or perhaps I should say tweaking it for years.  Recently, I've made it with my son in mind.  Chicken marinated in lemon juice, lightly fried, then baked with lemon slices and a sprinkling of light brown sugar.  Not quite a chicken nugget, but definitely the same family, only healthier.

Lemon Chicken (adapted from the Silver Palate Cookbook)

Serves 4 to 6

The following is a variation from a recipe in  the Silver Palate Cookbook.  The original calls for large chicken quarters to be marinated overnight, lightly fried and then baked for just under an hour.  I use chicken cutlets and marinate them for 4 to 6 hours, coat them in white whole wheat flour, lightly sauté them, then bake them for a fraction of the time of the original recipe.  The result is flavorful lemony chicken perfect for dinner or a weekend picnic.

5 chicken breasts boneless and skinned and cut in half to make long cutlets. (To make a long cutlet, take your hand and press down on breast while slicing through the center.  Your knife will be parallel to your hand and cutting board.)

1 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 4 large lemons)

2 cups white whole wheat flour (King Arthur and Trader Joes carries this.)

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/3 cup corn oil

2 tablespoons grated lemon zest

1/4 cup lightly packed brown sugar

1/4 cup water

2 lemons, sliced paper-thin

Combine chicken pieces and lemon juice and lemon zest in a bowl just large enough to hold them. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator 4 to 6 hours, turning occasionally.

Drain the chicken and pat it dry. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Fill a plastic bag with the flour, salt and black pepper and shake to mix. Put up to 4 pieces of chicken in the bag at a time and shake it to coat each piece.

In a large skillet, 12-14 inches is preferable, heat 1/2 the corn oil over med. high heat until the oil is hot but not smoking  You can test the temperature by putting one piece in the oil.  It should sizzle. Try to accomplish this in two batches if you can.  Sauté each batch (5 pieces at a time), for 3 minutes on each side until lightly browned. Arrange the browned chicken (overlapping slightly so they all fit), in a large baking dish. Sprinkle evenly with the brown sugar. Deglaze the skillet with the water and pour the sauce and bits from the pan around the chicken pieces. Place the lemon slices on top of the chicken and bake for 20 minutes.  Remove from the oven when the lemon slices have started to brown on the edges and juices in the pan are nice and bubbling. Serve with a nice salad or crispy browned potatoes.  Any leftovers are great cold and are perfect for a picnic.

I personally prefer this dish cold, though it is certainly delicious right out of the oven.  Either way, please enjoy and feel free to share your own variations of this dish.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

“Everything but the Kitchen Sink”

Last week, I worked myself into a frenzy over what I would prepare for dinner for my six-year old son and me. We were about to go away for the weekend, Daddy was on a business trip and I really didn’t want to go to the grocery store. Somehow I never remember my mother having this problem. She always had plenty of food on hand and things would either go bad or she would make multiple dishes and freeze them. I take a different approach and generally buy groceries one week at a time. I find this helps reduce waste and allows me to stick to a budget.

I must have had a puzzled look as I starred at several medium-sized white onions, a pint of cherry tomatoes and some bananas on my kitchen countertop. I opened up the fridge and found spinach, Hannaford’s low-fat Ricotta, several eggs, Parmesan cheese, two carrots, a pint of strawberries, a gallon or so of 2% milk and half a loaf of whole wheat bread. In the freezer: one sheet of puff pastry, spicy Italian sausage, frozen berries and bacon.

The trick was to make something out of all of this that my son might actually like and that would qualify as dinner. The other challenge was to make a dish based from memory and not refer to any books. What I came up with was a Ricotta and Tomato Tart I’d seen somewhere, so I figured I’d attempt a variation of this with a simple Spinach Ricotta Tart. Here goes nothing:

Spinach Ricotta Tart with Cherry Tomatoes.

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer or 3 to 4 as dinner.

2 cups of part skim Ricotta cheese. (My favorite brands for this are Hannaford’s or Sorrento.)

1 large egg

2 oz. grated Parmesan cheese

3 oz. baby spinach

salt and pepper to taste

Grated nutmeg (Fresh nutmeg is quite potent so use cautiously!)

1 sheet of Puff Pastry

1 pint of cherry tomatoes halved

Olive oil

Pre-heat the oven to 375˚.

Take the puff pastry out of the freezer and let it sit for 5 to 10 minutes. You want it pliable en ough to roll it out. In your food processor, pulse the ricotta, spinach, egg and parmesan cheese. Put the cheese and spinach mixture into the refrigerator while you are rolling out the puff pastry to allow it to set up.

Roll out the puff pastry to approx. 12” x 20”. Place the pastry on your buttered sheet pan (or on a silpat baking sheet) and then spread your ricotta mixture in the center of your pastry. Leave about an inch border around your ricotta mixture. Drop the cherry tomatoes onto the ricotta mixture and then drizzle it with olive oil.

Bake for 35 minutes turning the pan once to ensure even cooking. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 minutes before cutting.

Variations: Thinly slice rounds of zucchini and summer squash and layer them on top of the ricotta mixture.

I hope this dish worked for you as well as it did for my son and me.  As always, I encourage you to post your variations or ideas based on this dish.  I'm always interested in feedback from fellow foodies (foodback?) on my posts.  :-)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Slow Cooker Chicken Soup

My mother had to be pretty creative when she put dinner on the table.  She had three kids who all had very different palates. Plus she brought a sensibility to cooking that was distinctly foreign, owing to her years in Europe as a young married American woman living abroad.

I remember those meals vividly.  I remember delicious smells wafting from the stove. I remember beautiful food in vibrant, yet natural, colors. And most of all, I remember simple, healthy, seasonal fare.

Today, this is what I strive to create for my own family.  My hope is that this blog will help you to see dinner not a chore, but as an adventure. Go ahead and get your kids to help you with menu planning. And by all means, vary the recipes to your own liking.  Then if all goes well, you'll be able to create healthy, delicious, unique meals your kids will remember forever, too.

I'd like to begin with everyone's favorite -- chicken soup.  I love everything about it.  The brothy base, the multi-colored vegetables and hunks of chicken.  One thing that I really liked about chicken soup is that it can be really flavorful depending on what you put in it.  My friend Sally raved about her Slow Cooker chicken soup so I thought, I'd give it a whirl.

Tried and true Multi-Cultural Slow Cooker Chicken Soup
Serves 4-6
Cooking time – 6.5 hours

I'm calling this a multi-cultural soup because it started off originally as a Chicken Tortilla soup.  Now it has a slight French flair to it.  I’m hoping to add a Korean version soon.

2 14 oz. cans organic diced tomatoes
4 split boneless chicken breasts (approx. 2 lb.’s)
1 cup dried navy beans (rinse well)
1 cheese rind (I used Manchego but an aged Parmesan cheese rind works wonders.)
5 cups water
1 Knorr soup cube
1 tblsp. dried Herbs de Provence
2 med. carrots finely chopped
2 tsp. sea salt
Pepper to taste
1 med. Vidalia onion
2 dried Bay leaves

Put in all of the ingredients in your Slow Cooker and set on High for 4 hours.  Then turn the Slow Cooker down to low and cook for an additional 2.5 hours.

To make it kid friendly.  I made some pasta, Ditalini, and added frozen peas at the end of cooking the pasta.  Then I scooped out the Chicken soup and poured it over the pasta and peas.  When our son asked if he was having something different, I replied, “your having brothy, tomatoey pasta with peas.”  He looked at me and replied, “hmmm, I like pasta, I like peas.  Looks good to me, mommy!”

Sally’s version - Add in 1 14 oz. can of cream of mushroom soup.  Substitute one diced Jalapeno pepper for the Herbs do Provence.  Add in one diced green pepper.

Gayle’s version – Substituted black beans for navy beans, and thyme instead of Herbs de Provence, added garlic and Jalapeno peppers and at the end, sprinkled cheese and diced Avocado.