Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pot Lucks and Cheese Balls

I love a good pot luck.  They're a great time with friends, and people tend to bring either their favorite or their best dishes; it can be a good way to gain exposure to new foods. Tonight, we had an evening finger food potluck with a group from church.

The only thing about potlucks is that I am very indecisive, and so have a hard time choosing my favorite dish to take.  I also like to try out new recipes; while there's no reason not to do this at home, there's something exciting about sending an untried dish out to the world!  The other thing that makes it hard to decide is that I currently have a bunch of home-canned jams and jellies to use and choose from.  I like to incorporate them into pot-luck dishes as much as possible.

Tonight, I decided to make a cheese ball as inspired by of one of my new cookbooks: Paula Deen's Southern Cooking Bible. It made it possible for me to use some of my apricot habanero jelly AND to keep one of my resolutions- cooking out my new cookbooks!

I made some proportion changes to the original recipe, and I substituted walnuts for pecans. All in all, it was delicious.  Without sounding like a braggart (hopefully), I wasn't the only one who thought it was delicious: The whole plate was demolished before everyone got through the line!

Here's the ingredients-except the walnuts which I forgot to frame!

Here's what I did:

Chop finely 5 or 6 green onions, 2 large cloves of garlic, and half a cup of walnuts.

 Mix the chopped stuff in a bowl with 3 cups of shredded cheddar, 1/2 cup mayonnaise, and a half block of cream cheese at room temperature.

Also add 1/8 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp black pepper.  Mix this all together in a food processor or with a mixer.  Shape the mix into a ball, and wrap it in plastic wrap. Let it chill for a couple hours.

Take it out of the fridge and cut it in almost half- I made the top half a bit smaller- maybe a 1/3 to 2/3 proportion.  Make a divot in the bottom half.

 Fill the divot with 1/4-1/2 cup of  spicy pepper jelly.
This is one of the jellies I made last autumn. Its not terribly spicy, so I added about 1/8 tsp of cayenne to half the jar before filling the cheese ball!

Put the top half back on top and use your finger to blend the edges together.  Press another half cup or so of chopped walnuts over the top and sides of the ball.  Serve with crackers.
This makes a pretty large cheese ball- 3 cups of cheese and about 2 1/2 cups of other stuff.

As you can see- nothing left.  If you make it, I hope you enjoy it as much as my friends and I did!

The remains of the... evening.
What's cooking in your kitchen?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sick Days and Chicken Soup

Last October, I started working at a local Mother's Day Out program.  I teach music to children ages 1-4.  Its a lot of fun, and the kids are sweet.  They also are frequently sick with colds.  Which means I have been frequently sick with colds since shortly after I started working there.  That's where I am right now, on cold number three from my kids.

Twinings Lady Grey with clover honey
When I'm sick with a cold, there's two things I want.  1: Hot tea with honey and lemon or honey and milk. (Never with milk and lemon- nothing as gross as curdled tea!)

And 2: Chicken soup.  I know, I know, it's totally cliche.  But there's a reason it's a cliche- chicken soup does make you feel better! It's true! Growing up, that meant Campbell's chicken noodle soup. Not because my mom didn't make a good chicken soup- she absolutely did! I think it was probably because it's easier to make a can of soup for the one person in our family who was sick than to make a WHOLE POT of soup.

Now, I'll admit that I like Campbell's chicken noodle soup. It's salty enough- a lot of commercial and homemade soup have a hard time getting that balance right. There's also some decent sized chunks of chicken in there.  But honestly, I'd rather have a good homemade soup.

The problem with this is that I don't have a good "I'm-sick-and-I-want-chicken-soup" recipe.  Mom's chicken soup is actually Brunswick Stew, and though it's very yummy, it's not what I want when I'm sick.  I've searched all kinds of websites for the ultimate chicken noodle soup recipe, but none of the ones I've tried have worked out the way I want. They're not salty enough, or there's too much tomato, or not enough acidity, or the wrong kinds of vegetables; bland or yuck.  So I decided to just go with my instincts and make up my own. Here's what I did and how you can do it, too:

Peel and cut up a couple potatoes-1 sweet and 1 regular. Also finely chop up an onion (I used a 3/4 onion that I had left in my fridge) and press 3 or 4 cloves of garlic.
one russet, one sweet
Garlic smashed with the flat of the knife

All chopped up

Heat up some olive oil in your soup pot. 

Put 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts in the hot oil, sprinkle with Baby Bam,(an Emeril blend you can find here), and squeeze a lemon over all.

Cook the chicken until it's almost done- not pink inside, but not fully cooked either.  Remove it to a plate and let it rest a few minutes
This looks tasty! But don't eat yet because its still a little raw inside!
Dump your cut up veggies into the pot. Add a little salt, maybe half a teaspoon.
Pot liquor left after the chicken cooks

Veggies taste great cooked in pot liquor!

Stir your veggies around, don't let them burn. While the veggies are cooking, cut up the chicken.  Add it back to the pot when the onions are translucent and starting to caramelize.
Cut it all up
and put it in the pot!

 Pour a quart of chicken broth in the pot and add 4 cups of pork bouillon- 8 tsp of bouillon and 4 cups of water.  You might want to add another half teaspoon of salt, too.

Also add to the pot half a bag of frozen green beans, half a can of diced tomatoes, and a handful of baby spinach.  To be honest, I meant to add the spinach to the potatoes and onions as I was sauteing them, but I forgot.  You could always try it that way, I think it would be good.
green beans
Bring the pot to a boil.  Boil for a few minutes and then turn down to medium low.  Add two or three handfuls of pearl pasta or orzo or some other minute pasta, and let it cook for another ten minutes or so.

I'm no photographer, but I think this is a nice series of pictures!
 Check your seasonings, correct, and serve up! 

 Not only is this a pretty soup (see all the orange and green?!), but I feel pretty good about it, too.  There's a lot of veggies in it, which always makes things a little more worthwhile in my opinion!

I just ate my soup by itself, but I think that it would be great with some crusty bread, maybe with a little Parmesan or Romano cheese grated on top.

 What's cooking in your kitchen?!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Spaghetti Sauce

Pasta in red sauce is one of our go-to meals.  Its cheap. Its easy. Its relatively quick.  It can make a little or a lot depending on whether its just the two of us or if we're having company.  And we like it, no matter how often we eat it.

I grew up eating Ragu. Doctored Ragu, usually, with browned ground beef and onions, seasoned with garlic, Italian seasoning, and whatever else was on hand and sounded good.  Mom would serve this with a green salad and some garlic bread.  It was good, and we always enjoyed it.

Over the years, though, I've become a little more health conscious. (A little, you know. Not enough to keep me from the occasional fried zucchini or from putting real butter on my bread!)  I've become a food label reader, and I don't always like the things I see on spaghetti sauce labels. Who wants artificial flavorings, preservatives, or high fructose corn syrup in their tomato sauce?! You can always find and buy a brand that is more natural, but then you have to pay through the nose!

Or, you can make your own.

"Did she just say make your own spaghetti sauce?!" "I don't have time to do that!" "I'm not that good a cook!"

Yes, I did. Yes, you do. Yes, you ARE.

My friends, spaghetti sauce is EASY.  And if you make a batch of it, there will be enough for dinner tonight, plus dinner tomorrow, and maybe, depending on your portion size, two more dinners further down the road sometime.  It freezes easy, it cans well (if you're into that sort of thing, and I am!), and it beats the pants off of any sauce you find at the grocery store, and that's the truth.

Meaty Spaghetti Sauce

2 lbs Italian sausage, or a combination of sausage, ground beef, ground pork- whatever
1 small onion, finely chopped
4 minced garlic cloves
2-15 oz cans diced tomatoes
2 cans tomato paste
4 small or 2 large cans tomato sauce
2 cups water (for 2 hrs simmering)
1 tsp sugar
4 oz fresh basil, minced or 3 tsp dried
1 bunch finely chopped parsley or 3 tsp dried
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
pinch of red pepper (up to 1/2 tsp- but be careful!)
1/4-1/2 cup rich beef broth or red wine

Like always, do your prep work before you start: chop your onion, mince your garlic, chop up your herbs, get your spices together in a prep bowl, open your cans. 
Brown your meat. Just before it loses the last bit of pinkness, add the onions. Let them cook until they're soft, stirring occasionally.

So... there's a lot of steam in this picture. But you can tell its browning meat and onions, can't you?
Don't worry about scraping the bottom.  You'll do that in a little bit.
Once the onions are soft and translucent, pour the tomatoes, sauce, paste, and water in the pot. Gently scrape the browned bits off the bottom.
If you look closely, you can see the three different tomato products. Paste, sauce, and diced.
Add your seasonings and bring to a boil.  Turn the heat down to a low/medium low setting, add the beef broth or red wine, and cover the pot.  You're going to leave this on the stove for two hours, stirring only 3-4 times.  Leave it alone and let the flavors "marry". You don't HAVE to leave it on for 2 hours.  One hour will work, but reduce the water by half if you do.  I wouldn't leave it on any longer than 2 hours though. 

About 20 minutes before your two hours are up, put a pot of water on the stove to boil and preheat your oven to 350.  Butter a good loaf of bread and sprinkle it with some parmesan or romano cheese. Boil whatever type of noodles you want- spaghetti, rotini- my personal favorite, ziti, etc... according to package directions.  Put your bread in the oven right after you put the noodles in the pot.   After you drain your noodles, put them back in your boiling pot, and spoon the sauce over top to whatever consistency you like.  Take your bread out of the oven, and serve it all up!

Now that wasn't so hard, was it?  I have another recipe that is more of a marinara sauce (no meat) and is especially suited for canning. I think I like it even more than this one. I'll share that one sometime next month or so.

In the mean time... What's cooking in your kitchen?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Island Chicken

While I'm going through my cookbooks, trying to organize my thoughts and plans for my New Year's Resolution, I still have the other part of my resolution to keep up: blog at least twice a week.***  I got this recipe from a girl I know in Texas.  It supposedly makes 12-14 servings at 150 calories per serving, but I don't see 4 chicken breasts making 12 servings! Maybe 8, and 225 isn't terrible for a dish with coconut milk. But regardless of the serving size, it still sounds delicious!

 ***My camera batteries died, so I've had trouble keeping up with my resolution.  In fact, you'll see that there are fewer photos than usual in this edition.  But I have new batteries, so this week you'll get three posts!***

From the left: pineapple, water chestnuts, peas, grater, coconut, ginger, coconut milk, grated carrot, chicken thighs (not pictured...)

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts- cubed with fat removed
1 can Light coconut milk
1 can pineapple chunks in 100% juice (20 oz)
1/2 tsp powdered ginger (I've used fresh before, too)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 cup shredded carrots
1 can chopped water chestnuts
1/4-1/2 cup shredded coconut (depending on how much you like shredded coconut)
1 cup frozen peas, or snow peas, if in season

Do the prep work first: open the cans of pineapple and water chestnuts, shred the carrots.  I'm using chicken thighs instead of breasts.  I've browned them in a pan with a little bit- 1 or 2 tbsp of coconut milk and butter, much like I did in the Moroccan Stew, and removed the skin.

Brown the chicken and remove the skins.
Drain the pineapple juice into a stockpot and add 1/2 the can of coconut milk, the soy sauce and the ginger. Stir together and add the chicken.

Everything in the pot except the peas. Add them toward the end so they don't overcook!
Cook on a medium-low heat so that it boils gently to finish cooking the chicken. When the chicken is barely done, take it out and remove it from the bones. (Or don't- I didn't!) Put it back in the pot, add the carrots, water chestnuts, pineapple, coconut, and the remaining coconut milk. Allow to cook for a few minutes until carrots soften, then add the frozen peas. Heat through, serve over rice. :)

The new USDA 'plate' shows that you should have more veggies than anything else. Which is what we have going on right here. More veggies!
I served this with roasted root vegetables, a la the Pioneer Woman, and green beans.

The verdict: This dish is lightly sweet and a little bit plain.  But I feel like it needs something- maybe fresh ginger, or just more ginger; maybe some caramelized onion. Everything tastes better with onion!  Or maybe a bit of spicy Thai curry. The root vegetables provided a good flavor contrast to the chicken and rice- earthy sweetness as opposed to the crunchy tang of the waterchestnuts and the tart-sweet of the pineapple.  The green beans and the rice were much needed neutral flavors to stabilize what could have been an overly sweet meal!

What's cooking in your kitchen?

Monday, January 9, 2012

New Year's Resolution and Moroccan Chicken Stew

I got several cookbooks for Christmas this year. Paula Deen, Southern Living, Cook's Illustrated, Bisquick, and comfort food done healthy style. Along with these, I have about fifty other cookbooks that I either use a lot, or use very little- nothing really in between.  I figure there's no point in having these cookbooks unless I use them. With that said, here's my resolution, inspired by a post I saw on Serious Eats.  I am going to cook something from ALL of my cookbooks and blog about it.   Furthermore, I'm going to blog regularly- meaning at least twice a week, and hopefully more, time allowing.

So here's the start of my new year:  Moroccan Chicken Stew from the Cook's Illustrated cookbook, "Cover & Bake", a book of one dish recipes.

4.5 lbs bone in skin on chicken thighs
salt and pepper (to taste)
2 tsp vegetable oil (or olive oil)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
6 medium cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 1/2 tsp hot paprika
8 oz dried apricots, cut in halves or quarters
3 cups chicken broth
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 Tbsp all purpose flour
1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro leaves
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 lemon, cut in wedges

Prep your spices: put your garlic, cinnamon, cardamom, and paprika in a small bowl (as a parenthetical note, I added about 1/8th tsp cayenne pepper because my paprika was not the hot variety- I'll add more next time; I also substituted 1/4 tsp ginger and 1/4 tsp allspice for the cardamom);

chop up the onions and put them in a larger bowl with 1/4 tsp salt.

Cut up the apricots.

Now that you have the time consuming preparations done, heat the oil in a 12 inch pan. Dry the chicken and salt and pepper it.  Put half in the pan, skin side down.

Cooking in hot fat!
Cook for about 6 minutes until the skin is golden.  Flip it and cook until the other side is also golden, 2 minutes or so. 
Look at that Golden Skin!
 Take those pieces out of the pan and remove/discard the skin. Put the chicken pieces in a crockpot.  Drain off all but 2 tsp of fat from the pan, brown the second half of the chicken, discard its skin and dump it in the crockpot, too.
Peeling back the skin
Drain the fat from the pan again, all but 2 tsp or so.  Heat it until its shimmery, and add the onions to the pan. Cook them about 4 minutes until they are soft and translucent, scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Pour the small bowl of aromatics into the pan with the onions, stir it around and heat it until you can smell it heating up- maybe 30-45 seconds.  Add the apricots and 2 1/2 cups of the chicken broth. Turn up the heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Pour the boiling mixture over the chicken in the crockpot, and cook on low for 3-4 hours.
All in the pot!
Stir in the chickpeas, and let it cook for one more hour.
Remove the chicken from the pot, place it on a plate, and tent some foil over it.
Add the flour to the other half cup of chicken broth and stir it up until it is dissolved.
Whenever you're thickening a soup with flour or cornstarch, dissolve the thickener in a little bit of liquid before adding it to the pot.
Stir the chicken broth/flour mixture into the pot with the rest of the juice, turn the pot on high, and let it simmer for 15 minutes.  Once the broth has thickened, put the chicken back in the pot.  Serve on its own, over noodles, rice, or potatoes, which is what I did.
Moroccan Chicken Stew served over mashed potatoes with sweet and sour green beans and garlic toast
Review:  This was a good dish.  As you can see in the ingredient list, there's supposed to be cilantro in and lemon wedges with the stew.  I forgot the lemon wedges, and didn't put the cilantro in because the hubs doesn't like cilantro. I think it needed both items- the stew definitely needed something with a bite.  When I make it again, I'll also increase the cayenne and caramelize the onions and the apricots before adding the spices.
I served the leftovers with spaetzle, but it wasn't as good as the mashed potatoes.

What's cooking in your kitchen?