Monday, February 28, 2011

Desperation Chili

I feel like all my posts should begin something like this: We had no food in the house because we haven't had time to go shopping, so we threw together wilted, old, awful things in a desperate attempt to avoid eating a sodium-laden meal out. Do you have nights like this?

We are awful about shopping and stocking our pantry lately, and it has to stop! We have a Trader Joe's right close to us, and we still avoid shopping. Luckily, tonight I found what is probably the oldest frost-covered ground turkey anyone could possibly have in their freezer and was able to piece together a few other things to make chili.

My earliest chili memories center around my mom's dad, who made chili each winter. What was so special about his chili was that he used all his garden canned veggies to make it, so it was full of delicious tomatoes, for example, that we'd helped to pick over the summer. It was a thin, tomato-y, beany chili that he served with Saltines, and it was one of the most special things I remember about being at Grandpa's house. However, Grandpa's favorite part about chili day was getting all of us to come "see the brown bunny under his blanket" after dinner, which meant he'd just passed gas for us to smell.

My dad's dad also made chili, but he made the meaty chili with those XLNT bricks of unknown origin chili meat that are congealed in fat and oil. It was equally good, but totally different. So light on beans that you could count them on one finger, this chili was beefy and comforting. He was making it into his early 90s; it's the one treasured recipe I'm lucky enough to have from my dad's side of the family. The other rumored recipe is a coconut cake that used melted ice cream in the batter--have had no luck tracking down anything like that.

So anyway, here is hodge podge/cupboards were bare chili. Helmut, our cat, isn't going to one day blog about memories of us making this.

Desperation Chili

1 lb. really old, frost-covered ground turkey
2 cans beans, rinsed (I used cannelini and red because that's what I had, but whatever works...)
1 c. chopped, frozen pepper
3/4 onion, chopped
Generous shakes chili powder--to taste
1 t. dried cumin
1 t. dried garlic powder
1 t. fresh chopped garlic (I could be a smart alec and tell you that having both garlics makes a difference, but I doubt it does--read at your own risk!)
2 t. dried cilantro
3 pinches dried beef broth
1 T. greek salad dressing (I go for layers of flavor in chili)
1 t. olive oil
2 chopped, peeled medium carrots
2 ribs limp celery, chopped
1 can diced tomatoes
4 packets hot sauce from drive through (I know--go with it; it's what I had!)
2 T. ketchup for sweetness
Salt and pepper to taste
Water to make it as soupy as you'd like
Red pepper flakes to taste

Saute turkey with oil, salad dressing, and spices. Add peppers, onions, carrots, and celery. Cook for 20 mins. Add beans, tomatoes, hot sauce, and ketchup. Add water to suit however thick you like your chili. Cook on low heat for up an hour or a minimum of 30 more mins. Let's face it--chili's an all-day thing, and shorter cooking times are no friend to flavor for soups and stews. You can quote me on that. I know you won't--you'll quote me on calling for "limp celery".

Regardless of the desperate or not so desperate nature of a chili, one thing that always brightens any day is smell of it cooking away on the stove. Of course, you could use fresh veggies and meat that wasn't shoved into the freezer because it was about to expire. Chili says family to me. It also says home. Once we pull out the Saltines, this meal will take me back, just for an instant, to the ones I remember with grandfathers long ago.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Little Ears Pasta

In December, we had a quick weekend trip to the Palazzo in Vegas to meet some of Doug's high school friends. We booked a prestige room package that included champagne and catered nightly cocktail events and the like. Private check in = what I'm talking about! That's where we fell in love with little ears (orecchiette) pasta. It feels like I'm back in elementary school with the spelling. I used to be an editor and had to look this one up.

The Palazzo chef prepared his little ears right in front of us, and it was the best pasta we've ever had. So simple and versatile--my favorite kind of recipe. My only quibble is that these little ears look more to me like seashells.

Simple Orecchiette

Orecchiette pasta, cooked and drained
Parmesan (grate your own--makes the dish!)
Veggie of your choice
Salt and pepper

At the Palazzo, the chef made a simple sauce of cream, butter, salt, pepper, and the veggies. He used finely chopped broccoli. We chop our broccoli that finely in a food processor or blender and add it to the cream and butter. Then he cooked the sauce down to warm the broccoli bits and added parm, tossing the dish with the pasta at the end. We love it this way with a little extra cheese on top--it's literally a revelation, as Doug puts it.

But in the past month or so, we've also expanded our thinking a bit. Sometimes, I don't have broccoli, so I throw in frozen peas instead. It's great with chopped sun dried tomatoes or chopped artichokes and spinach. It would be great with chopped chicken and tomatoes, artichokes, and spinach. While broccoli is still our favorite (the romance of Vegas lingers), we are head over heels for these little ears and all their possibilities.

We get our pasta at Italian markets rather than the grocery store--it tastes so much better and fresher! As a blank canvas, this pasta is a wonderful pantry addition. This little piggy loves it!

Chocolate Cloud Cake

Our house is very divided in the age old chocolate v. vanilla cake debate. Doug loves chocolate and usually wears it as a moustache and beard after licking beaters or brownie bowls. Vanilla resonates more with me--there's something simple and light about it, and it's so much prettier on my cake stand.

But every once in a while, we come together on a chocolate cake idea that's a little out of the ordinary. My recipe was inspired by a delicious cake I had as an intern at a nonprofit years and years ago. A few tweaks and additions later, here's a new spin on it!

Chocolate Cloud Cake

3/4 c. butter (I used Irish Cream and loved the results)
3 large eggs
2 t. vanilla
Splash almond extract
1 1/2 c. milk
3 T. unsweetened applesauce (makes it so moist--worth adding to any darker cake batter!)
2 c. flour
3/4 c. unsweetened cocoa powder
1 t. baking soda
3/4 t. baking powder
3/4 t. salt
2 c. sugar
1 c. extra dark chocolate chips (60%)

Mix softened butter, eggs, extracts, and sugar in a big bowl. I do this by hand because I hate the noise of a mixer. Add applesauce. Mix dry ingredients (except chocolate chips) together. Add dry ingredients alternately with milk. Fold chocolate chips into batter. 

Pour cake into a gresed 13 x 9 pan, and bake at 350 degrees for about 30-40 mins. Watch it closely; you don't want it to dry out or burn.

Pull cake from oven, and immediately top with 2 c. mini marshmallows and 2 c. sweetened coconut. Let marshmallows melt on top. (You could substitute enough marshmallow cream to cover the top too--whatever you have.) Alternatively, you could use chopped almonds in addition to or instead of the coconut--play with it a little.

Once the cake has cooled a bit more (30-45 mins), top it with homemade chocolate buttercream. I'm all about the homemade frosting--canned tastes so chalky and chemically. It's worth the effort to mix your own. I never use a recipe for mine, and if I happen to be over at my mom's when I make it, I beg her to do it. Her buttercream is always better than mine, though we mix it the same way and use the same ingredients. Moms are better at so many things.

We start with a stick of butter and add vanilla, a dash of milk or cream, and a few cups of powdered sugar. My mom only uses C&H, but I generally get whatever powdered sugar is cheaper. I guess this could account for the difference in the end result too, eh? Hmm...

This cake is so rich that we had to cut it into thin rectangle slices rather than square pieces, but it's so worth it. The applesauce makes the cake moist, and the marshmallows on top seem to help too. What's even better is that this cake is easy to whip up and uses ingredients most of us have on hand.

Everyone loved it, except our cat, who loves a little vanilla frosting occasionally, but obviously couldn't have any chocolate anything. Doug's going to take one of these to his employees tomorrow. Perhaps we'll start a weekly baked goods ritual to kick Mondays off right at the office. That's a trend I can get behind!

What do you add to make your chocolate cake special?

Guac Tacs

This past week, we had one of my favorite go-to vegetarian dinners: guacamole tacos. My mom spoils us with avocado deliveries from time to time, so we make a lot of guacamole when we have the fruit. I used to work with some wonderful people who made these tacos, and years later, this dish is still a staple in my repertoire. Very simple.

You just need corn tortillas, feta cheese, guacamole, and nuts (optional). With the guacamole as the wild card we don't always have, the rest of these ingredients are basics in our pantry. We make our guacamole with 3 avocados (Fuertes are our favorite), 3 - 4 T. chopped jalapenos, a splash of jalepeno juice, 1 lime's worth of juice, and salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Everyone makes guacamole differently, and it's always delicious, so play with it if you like. A good friend of mine just adds salsa to mashed avocado, and I'll tell you what--it's just like restaurant guacamole. Hard to go wrong with a good avocado.
To assemble, we just put a few tablespoons of guacamole on one half of a tortilla we warm on the burner until it's crispy. Then we top with feta and nuts (only sometimes with the nuts--usually almonds) and serve.

If you're skeptical about a vegetarian main dish, try this with a side of corn mixed with a little butter, salt, pepper, and diced bell pepper. Just as filling as steak or chicken but much lighter--a fun way to welcome spring and summer during these winter months in Southern California.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Chicken & Biscuits

Today, the freezer inspired me. How often does this happen? My freezer mainly likes to store a lot of ice--in the ice bucket, on top of things, as a protective coat and mittens on the Haagen-Dazs...

But today it actually housed a few treasures that I turned into Desperation Dinner. A few months ago, we made a delicious chicken pot pie, and neither of us grew up eating this very All-American dinner staple. So I thought, why not give this a whirl again?

This Taste of Home recipe was my inspiration (great magazine--you should check it out). Originally, I got a little ahead of myself and thought, Oh, I love these little cups, and they'll be easy to make. While they clearly seem easy to make, and I'm going to try them soon, I found myself without cupcake tins tonight. (That's a whole other post--where did they run off to?) So I made a big lazy pan of chicken and biscuits rather than the pot pie cups.

Here's the recipe:

4 c. frozen leftover homemade leek and onion soup
1 c. frozen leftover homemade chicken gravy
2 huge boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 t. herbs de provence
1 t. thyme
1/2 t. sage
Sprinkle majoram
1 bay leaf
2 c. chopped carrots
1/4 c. chopped green onions (white parts)
1 c. frozen corn
2 c. frozen peas
2 c. chopped green beans
1/4 c. frozen spinach
3 T. cream cheese
5 T. cream
2 T. mayo (Are we having a heart attack yet? Use light or fat free condiments if you'd rather!)
Salt, pepper,and garlic powder to taste (Generous sprinkles!)

Put soup, gravy, 2 c. water, and chicken in stockpot to simmer. Add herbs.

(Appealing picture, isn't it?) Cook til chicken is cooked and you have a gravy consistency. Pull out chicken to shred. Add veggies and cook for 10 more minutes with lid on. (Should be boiling or close to it.)

Fish out bay leaf. Add cream, cream cheese, and mayo. Mix chicken back in. Then pour chicken mixture into greased 9 x 13 pan.

This is where the lazy part comes in. I'd love to tell you that I labored away making biscuits because Doug was going to be home after a long day of manual labor with a big appetite and because I'm that kind of person. But in reality, we have three tubes of refrigerator biscuits left from the monkey bread we never made. We're those kind of people. The "find three tubes of biscuits in the back of the fridge" type.

So what happened next was me placing individual biscuits on top in even spaces with a little garlic powder on top. Prettay, prettay good. Put into a 450 degree oven for about 10 minutes. But watch the biscuits closely, like they're your children or your cat who likes to get on the neighbor's roof.

This is clearly kitchen sink pot pie, but you get the idea. If you don't have 4 c. of leftover soup from the leek experiment you did four weeks ago, you could use another homemade soup or boxed or canned. When I get little glops of leftover gravy, I put the tidbits in one container in the freezer, and over time, it builds up to a respectable gravy pile. Like money in the bank. If I didn't have it, I might make a bit on the fly or add some canned cream of chicken soup in its place. (Heck, you could go to KFC and buy their gravy--I won't tell anyone.)

The veggies are totally up to you. This is what I had. Normally, I'd add in celery. There was a brief flirtation with the artichoke hearts in the freezer, but we didn't end up dating tonight. The amount of peas is very subjective, and on and on.

Bottom line: This recipe got a lot of frozen veggies and my leftovers out of the freezer, so this is turning out to be a winner day, you know?  The real dark horse in this dish is the herbs de provence--they add a little mellow complexity that really makes you feel like you accomplished something at the end of a long day. Add a quick tossed salad (whisk balsamic, olive oil, jam, and spicy mustard in bottom of bowl; toss in greens, nuts, fruit, and cheese), and you've got a delicious meal. This not eating out business is starting to be a little more fun.

What did everyone else have for dinner? Any suggestions for pot pie or chicken and biscuits?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

V Day Cooks

When I was about 8, my grandma made all of us Fallbrook cousins each a plate of heart-shaped sugar cookies with pink frosting. For some reason, those cookies stick out in my memory more than any others. She delivered them to me while I was spending the afternoon doing my homework at my parents' shop, so it felt like a kid-sized Fedex from one of my favorite people.

And then there was the flavor: crispy, buttery, creamy--and lots of pink icing. Of course, anything baked with grandma magic always tastes better. So in homage to my wonderful grandma, who is 85, this year, my mom and I made pink frosted sugar cookie hearts this weekend.

Here's the recipe we used:

3/4 c. butter
1 c. white sugar
2 eggs
2 t. real vanilla (use the expensive stuff--it's so worth it!)
2 1/2 c. flour (use a little more if the dough feels too wet)
3/4 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
Extra flour for rolling

Cream butter and sugar; add eggs and vanilla. Mix in dry ingredients. Flour a flourcloth for rolling the dough, and dump the dough out for immediate rolling. More practical people will tell you to chill the dough at this point, but I've never been mistaken for practical.

Roll the dough out, and cut with desired cookie cutters. We used a 3" valentine's heart. Then bake at 350 degrees in a preheated oven for 6-9 minutes. I like to pull them out when they're still very light on top and bottom and then let them finish cooking on the cookie sheet for a few minutes.

Pull cookies onto cooling rack and cool. Then ice with a mix of 1/2 cube butter, few cups powdered sugar, and a few tablespoons milk. I mixed in some red gel food coloring to make the icing a deep pink. If you're feeling fanciful (which I was for half the batch), scatter some jimmies or sprinkles on top of the icing.

These cookies were delicious--they're now my go-to sugar cookies. Doug even liked them, and he's not a sugar cookie man. Now my dad will tell you that these cookies are best unfrosted with Mom's homemade apricot jam drizzled on top, but you frosting fans know what I mean when I say that buttercream trumps all.

We ended up eating a few and taking most to Doug's employees, who like homemade baked goodies more than anyone I've ever met (including my 8-year-old self getting Valentine's cookies!!). Just kidding!

Hope you enjoyed your Valentine's Day and have a few warm memories in your heart of those special baked goods that leave such a lasting impression.

And I'm Back...

After such an ambitious initial blog posting, I took a month hiatus from my plan and from posting. How's that for consistency? However, I'm back with slightly more attainable ambitions.

While I made myself these big promises about food budgets and lofty cooking goals for the year, at the end of the day, I'm just like you--struggling to get something on the table tasting half way decent before I gnaw my foot off from hunger.

Tonight is one of the nights that I look my kitchen in the eye and say, "Why did we get ourselves into this complicated, delicate relationship?" I just felt uninspired. After the work day's done, how many of us come home full of enthusiasm to get something exciting going on the stove? So I rooted around a bit in my pantry, desperate to avoid a sodium-laden takeout night. First I found one lone potato that must have weighed close to a pound, so I got that baking in the oven.

Next, I looked in the fridge for a protein and found a 1 lb. package of ground beef that I paid an astonishing $4.99 for. ??!! I think it's fair to say that I didn't even look at prices last time I went to Trader Joe's. Won't be doing that again. So I mixed the ground beef with an egg, grated onion, grated carrot, grated zucchini, marjoram, garlic, salt, pepper, wooster sauce, and some ketchup. Then I made a meatloaf out of it and put chunks of extra sharp cheddar in the middle of the loaf. On top: a drizzle of ketchup and a criss cross drizzle of mustard.

Then a little homemade thousand island to go on each piece as a sauce: mayo, ketchup, sweet pickle relish. Absolutely the best meatloaf we've had in a long time! I've read about cheesburger meatloaf as an idea but never thought it sounded good until I was desperate with my pound of ground beef. Boy, was I missing out for a long time.

We ate it with a side of coleslaw because a bag of shredded cabbage was giving me the same look the kitchen seemed to give me earlier. It was the "use me" look. Just a little chopped banana, mayo, sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice--so simple and good. I love it with Miracle Whip too. In the early winter, I substitute pomegranate seeds for the bananas, in the spring I use pineapple or mandarin oranges (canned), and in the summer, I like this salad with crisp red grapes.Very versatile, and the preshredded cabbage is one of my favorite grocery store finds. It makes it so much easier to use this healthy vegetable.

After all this to do and the sharing of the one potato between two hungry people, I am ready to admit that I'm glad we stayed in. It's wet outside, and there's something cozy about meat and potatoes in the oven. Hope you enjoyed a nice meal with your family tonight too!