Tuesday, September 30, 2008

About That Bare-Bones Chicken Cordon Bleu...

Here's what I love - a dish that sounds much fussier and fancier than it actually is. I'm all about maximum results from minimal effort.

This is Day 2 of the Iron Chef Challenge. Since my actual dinner choice was driven by my not feeling well (a grain-based entree with a dairy.... oh FINE, it was Cheerios and skim milk) I'm instead going to post a recipe for which I have the ingredients but didn't actually make this evening. But I could have, just so we're clear. ;)

Not too long ago I mentioned throwing together a bare-bones version of Chicken Cordon Bleu after Sweetie and I came home one weekend evening. And how cool is this? I happened upon Wellshire Farms' (LOVE their products) sliced/packaged Black Forest deli ham at 50% off, one day before the expiration date. I used some of it that night to make the Ham and Spinach Frittata (part of the Learn To Cook series), and froze the rest. A few days later I used more to make the filling for this chicken.

Can you start this after work and have dinner on the table before 10pm? Yes, but you can make life much easier on yourself. Prepare the ham, cheese, and mustard filling ahead of time and store it in the fridge. If you really want to be on the ball go ahead and stuff the chicken ahead of time, too, and just cover it tightly with Saran wrap and refrigerate.

Ham & Cheese-Stuffed Chicken Breasts

From Eating Well magazine's Fall, 2004 edition:

1/2 cup grated Swiss, Monterrey Jack, or part-skim mozzarella cheese (honestly, the mozzarella is not going to be all that flavorful)
2 Tablespoons chopped ham
2 teaspoon Dijon mustard (all you have is spicy brown, or regular yellow? No biggie, use it)
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (1 to 1 1/4 pounds total)
1 egg white
1/2 cup plain dry breadcrumbs (plain are preferred, but the earth will not stop turning if you have Italian-herb crumbs and just want to use those. Really.)  OR crushed cornflakes for a gluten-free option.
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil (or vegetable oil or canola oil)

If you're making the stuffing ahead of time - mix the ham, cheese, and mustard in small bowl. Add a twist or two of fresh black pepper. Wrap and refrigerate if you're making this ahead of time.

Cut a horizontal slit along the thin, long edge of a chicken breast half, nearly through to the opposite side. Open up the breast (like a book) and place 1/4th the filling in the center. Close the breast over the filling, pressing the edges firmly together to seal. Repeat with the remaining chicken breasts and filling. You can go this far ahead of time, and just do the skillet & baking at dinnertime.

When you're ready to cook - preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Lightly beat the egg white with a fork in a medium bowl. Place breadcrumbs in a shallow glass dish. Hold each chicken breast half together and dip in egg white, then dredge in breadcrumbs. Throw away the leftover egg white and bread crumbs.

Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken breast; cook until browned on one side, about 2 minutes.

Place the chicken, browned-side up, on the prepared baking sheet. Bake about 20 minutes, or until thermometer registers 170 degrees. [Note - the recipe says "cook until no longer pink in the middle. But ham is pink, so....?]

Per serving - 236 calories; 7g fat; 10g carbohydrate; 31g protein

Pretty much any vegetable would be good on the side. Corn always goes beautifully with ham. We often have steamed broccoli & carrots with this to add some color to the plate and fiber to the dish.

Oh, and as a result of not properly labeling my freezer contents, I once thawed chicken breasts for this dish, only to discover that they were chicken tenders. I made a kind of chicken cordon bleu pinwheel, holding each rolled tender & filling together with a toothpick. If you make that same mistake, that's the way out but I don't recommend doing it intentionally. What a mess!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Iron Chef, Day One - And Pot Roast, the Crock Pot Version

Fate has smiled upon me and I have 8 new gallons of gasoline in my car! A pick-up truck tried to cut in line in front of me, and the two drivers behind me about lost their minds and were ready to go all Rodney King/LAPD. Kudos to the Quick Trip attendant who peaceably and efficiently threw the pick-up off the property.

Since what's in my tank has to last 2 weeks (according to the newspaper), I'm still not driving to any supermarkets. Tonight's Iron Chef dinner is really no big deal - tomato soup and grilled cheese. I had everything on hand, I'm fighting a cold, and it hits the spot.

I'm also throwing together tomorrow's lunch - one leftover chicken breast with leftover salsa, with some brown rice (frozen) and black beans (fridge) remaining from last week's Caribbean-themed Girls Night Dinner. I'll top it with some Monterey Jack cheese that is, ahem, really ready to be used up. In other words, Mexican Chicken made from entirely pre-fab parts.

So there's a request - of the "I have a husband to keep, you know" variety - for a crockpot version of the Savory Pot Roast. Never let it be said that I don't support marriage, or that I am oblivious to this recipe's positive impact on my own.

Happy to oblige.

Savory Pot Roat - Crockpot Version
1 2.5 to 3-pound boneless beef chuck pot roast
2 garlic cloves
2 TBSP cooking oil
2 TBSP horseradish (optional), splash of red wine (optional)
1 14-ounce can of beef broth
1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce - note that some Worcestershire sauces have gluten
1 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
2 medium potatoes or 8 whole tiny new potatoes
8 small carrots (or parsnips, or a little of both)
2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces (totally optional)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour or gluten-free faux flour

1. Scrub and thinly slice all vegetables on a cutting board. Peel the carrots if you wish, but as long as they're well-scrubbed you don't have to; and their fiber content will increase with the peels on, anyway. Same with the potatoes.

2. Place the vegetables in a 3 1/2- or 4-quart crock pot.

3. Set your regular stovetop cooking pot on the stove and pour in 2 TBSP vegetable oil. It's just easier to do this now when your hands are still clean.

4. Using a sharp knife trim the visible fat from the pot roast. Throw the fat away.

5. For a more mild pot roast, simply roll the roast in the flour for a light dusting. For a more flavorful pot roast with a little bite, brush the pot roast with horseradish, then roll in the flour. [Thanks to College Roomie for the tip!]

6. Wash your hands, then heat your large saucepan or soup pot to medium-high heat.

7. When you throw a small drop of water into the pan and it spits, the oil is hot. Add the pot roast to the hot oil. DO NOT drop it in from the top of the pan - the hot oil will splash up and possibly burn you and definitely make a mess. Instead, lower the pot roast into the pan.

8. What we're doing here is getting a good sear on the beef. This will dramatically improve the color and get us to that rich, appetizing brown. After 3 minutes or so, turn the roast and let it cook for another 3-ish minutes. Do your best to get some sear on all sides of the roast.

9. Cut the roast to fit the crockpot; place atop vegetables.

10. Pour the broth/sauce/Worcestershire/basil/wine (if using wine) mixture over the roast. Add the garlic.

11. Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 10 - 12 hours.

I like a heavier gravy, and this has more pan juices.
No problem. Once finished, use tongs/slotted spoon to lift out the roast and veggies onto a clean platter. If the remaining juices measure less than 1 1/2 cups, add water or broth to equal 1 1/2 cups. Return liquid to a saucepan on the stove. Stir together 1/2 cup cold water and 1/4 cup flour. Stir into juices. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly.

It sounds like there's a lot of leeway with the spices. What can I add? What shouldn't I add?
The first time I make a recipe I make it as it's written. Then, if it's worth making again, I can add or subtract according to what I thought of the recipe the first time.

Possible add-ins:
1 teaspoon oregano
1 Tablespoon barbecue sauce
1/4 cup sliced sweet potato
2 Tablespoons bourbon
1/2 tsp lemon-pepper

Don't add:
Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, or cloves
Indian spices (garam masala, coriander)

Sunday, September 28, 2008

It's Iron Chef Week!

Man, if ever there was a week to be glad that I'm not dependent on takeout, this would be it! My bank is now something other than Washington Mutual, my car is parked (Atlanta has no gasoline that I know of), and I'm seeing the wisdom of a vegetable garden, which we don't have.

Since I didn't go to our wonderful DeKalb Farmer's Market - it's 8 miles away and I have no idea when Atlanta is getting gas again - I'm making do with whatever's in the freezer. Should be interesting!

So in these times of uncertainty, cooking is a good thing. Obviously, it's much less expensive than eating out. Secondly, there's a certain core, nurturing comfort in walking into my nice clean kitchen and watching a homemade soup simmer. Economic changes take a long time to take effect; raw ingredients can be transformed into a dinner in 20 minutes.

Anyway - pot roast! You'll need a heavy, spacious cooking pot with a good lid. If you don't have a lid use aluminum foil. Remember, if you find an amazing deal on a large pot roast and you have a small household, get it and cut it into smaller pieces before freezing. Just wrap the raw meat tightly in Saran wrap to prevent freezer burn, put the plastic-wrapped meat into a heavy Ziploc, and slap a label on there.

You will need at least one cutting board, one sharp knife, and a plastic bag or metal bowl to collect the fat you trim off the roast. Also, you'll want tongs or a heavy wooden spoon to turn the roast.

One quick word about knives... it is absolutely imperative to have a good, sharp knife if you're going to do any cooking at all. It sounds counterintuitive to say that a sharp knife is much, much safer than a dull one, but it's true.

With a dull knife you try to muscle your way through the raw potato, the potato rolls, and you have all that downward pressure on a rolling potato and no control over the knife. That's how people end up with nasty cuts - they instinctively grab the moving food with the non-knife hand and the uncontrolled knife ends up on the hand and not the food. EEEWWW. With a sharp knife you don't have to use that much pressure, and it slices cleanly. So besides being safer it's actually much, much easier and faster. I honestly would not cook as much if I had to do it with a dull knife - it's just too laborious.

Savory Pot Roast
1 2.5 to 3-pound boneless beef chuck pot roast
2 garlic cloves
2 TBSP cooking oil
2 TBSP horseradish (optional), 2 TBSP Worcestershire (optional), splash of red wine (optional)
1 14-ounce can of beef broth
1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
2 medium potatoes or 8 whole tiny new potatoes
8 small carrots (or parsnips, or a little of both)
2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces (totally optional)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1. Scrub and cut up all vegetables on a cutting board. If you're using tiny new potatoes, just leave them whole - no need for cutting. Press the garlic cloves through a garlic press, and leave the smooshed garlic on a separate part of the cutting board. Peel the carrots if you wish, but as long as they're well scrubbed you don't have to; and their fiber content will increase with the peels on, anyway. Same with the potatoes.

2. Set your cooking pot on the stove and pour in 2 TBSP vegetable oil. It's just easier to do this now when your hands are still clean.

3. In a measuring cup or small bowl, add the beef broth, tomato sauce, Worcestershire, and dried basil. Stir to combine. [Note - if you're using a roast larger than 3 pounds, add at least 1/4 cup more of water, broth, or wine to make sure there is enough cooking liquid. You may need to add more than that.]

4. In a small dish set out 1/4 cup flour. Season it with 2 dashes each salt and pepper.

5. If you're only using one cutting board then move your vegetables into a bowl and put your pot roast on the cutting board. If you're using two, put your pot roast on the other cutting board.

Using a sharp knife trim the visible fat from the pot roast. Throw the fat away.

6. For a more mild pot roast, simply roll the roast in the flour for a light dusting. For a more flavorful pot roast with a little bite, brush the pot roast with horseradish, then roll in the flour. [Thanks to College Roomie for the tip!]

7. Wash your hands, then heat your large saucepan or soup pot to medium-high heat.

8. When you throw a small drop of water into the pan and it spits, the oil is hot. Add the pot roast to the hot oil. DO NOT drop it in from the top of the pan - the hot oil will splash up and possibly burn you and definitely make a mess. Instead, lower the pot roast into the pan.

9. What we're doing here is getting a good sear on the beef. This will dramatically improve the color and get us to that rich, appetizing brown. After 3 minutes or so, turn the roast and let it cook for another 3-ish minutes. Do your best to get some sear on all sides of the roast.

10. Pour the broth/sauce/Worcestershire/basil mixture over the roast. Add the garlic. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to #2 or #1 (or somewhere between) on an elecric stovetop. Cover with the lid or aluminum foil, and allow it to cook slowly for one hour.

11. Add the potatoes, carrots, onions, celery (if using), and parsnips (if using) to the meat. Return to boiling.

12. Reduce the heat again, and cover with the lid or foil. Simmer, covered, for 45 - 60 minutes. If you put a fork in the roast and it easily slides through and even starts to fall apart a little, it's done.

I like a heavier gravy, and this has more pan juices.
No problem. Once finished, use tongs/slotted spoon to lift out the roast and veggies onto a clean platter. If the remaining juices measure less than 1 1/2 cups, add water or broth to equal 1 1/2 cups. Return the liquid to the pot. Stir together 1/2 cup cold water and 1/4 cup flour. Stir into juices. Cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly.

It sounds like there's a lot of leeway with the spices. What can I add? What shouldn't I add?
The first time I make a recipe I make it as it's written. Then, if it's worth making again, I can add or subtract according to what I thought of the recipe the first time.

Possible add-ins:
1 teaspoon oregano
1 Tablespoon barbecue sauce
1/4 cup sliced sweet potato
2 Tablespoons bourbon
1/2 tsp lemon-pepper

Don't add:
Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, or cloves
Indian spices (garam masala, coriander)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Mooooving In

Of course there were the issues of how (and whether) to comingle the CDs and who tends the yard and all the other discussions that have to be had when joining households.

And one day my beloved told me, in the nicest and gentlest way, that if he had one more piece of chicken he was going to grow a beak himself.

To cut to the chase, I cook beef now. I haven't eaten any since I spent 6 months running around West Africa in 1989, but I took our differing diets as a great opportunity to expand my cooking repertoire.

There are some pretty easy ways to accommodate everyone. When I make tacos I have one skillet with ground beef or ground bison and another skillet with ground turkey. I split the seasonings between the two skillets and everything else is the same - tortillas, sour cream, tomatoes, etc. Same thing for spaghetti with meat sauce - one small saucepan for beef sauce and another small saucepan for sauce with ground turkey. Hamburgers on the grill, turkey burgers on the grill. The extra work is really minimal and it's absolutely worth it to have both of us at the dinner table, happy to be there.

So when you love someone, you adapt and you grow and you learn. And one of the things I do for my sweetie is make pot roast. I haven't had it myself but I hear it's quite good.

One thing I have finally figured out - with pork tenderloin, with pot roast, with other large pieces of meat - is that I can cut them in half before they're cooked and freeze the other half. Otherwise it's just too much for a small household and we really start to dread the third day of the same dinner! I think one of the things Sweetie enjoys so much about the pot roast is opening the door and being greeted with a warm, savory smell of slow-cooked beef and carmelized onions. By freezing half the roast raw, he gets that experience twice from the same cut.

This morning it's a crisp 60 degrees in Atlanta, to the great shock of all my flowers except the mums. And that means it's time to welcome back some roasts and stews and - can I get an amen?? - apple desserts.

No big surprise here; this week's Learn To Cook/No-Fuss recipe is Savory Pot Roast. It freezes exceptionally well. If you're going to freeze it I recommend adding some extra broth and not freezing the vegetables. Instead, as you re-heat the pot roast with the extra broth, add some fresh potatoes and carrots and let them cook. It's a little more work but the vegetables will taste fabulous!

You'll need:

One boneless beef chuck pot roast, 2 1/2 to 3 pounds (there's a lot of leeway here - if you see a beautiful 3.2 pound roast and that's what you want, get it)
Cooking oil
Dry wine, tomato sauce, or V-8 - depending on how savory and how thick you want the gravy. I use a combination of tomato sauce (the small 8-ounce can) and a splash of red wine.
Horseradish (optional)
Worcestershire sauce (optional)
1 can of beef broth
Dried basil
3/4 pound tiny new potatoes OR 8 - 10 fingerling potatoes OR 2 medium potatoes. If you like parsnips, toss 'em in
8 small carrots
2 small onions or one large. Shallots should not be substituted.
2 stalks celery (optional - I never use it)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Depends On Your Definition of "News"

What journalistic crown jewel will People's cover story be next week?

"Deserts are Dry"
"Shoes Are For Feet"
"Fish Swim"

If Mom Made Brownies Like This I'd Have Moved Next Door

This Cook's Illustrated article talks about trying to find brownies like Mom used to make. My mother is a terrific baker, legendary for her many varieties of homemade cookies, but when it came time to make brownies she and all the other Moms reached for a box of Betty Crocker. And, contrary to what our anal-retentive Cook's Illustrated friends have to say, some of the boxed mixes (mmmm... Ghirardeli Double Chocolate Brownie mix) are pretty good.

There's "pretty good" and there's a transcendent chocolate experience, and everyone should have one of those at least once. That's asking quite a lot of a simple baked good, isn't it? But this brownie can rise to the occasion and it's absolutely worth the effort and expense.

I know, I know, I bust on CI's Goldilocks reviews (this was was too soupy, this one was too dry, this one was just right!!) but really, their recipes are unparalleled.

My preference was to leave the nuts out, since a co-worker is allergic and there was absolutely no way I was keeping all of these at home. It calls for cake flour, and it really does make a difference to use cake flour and not all-purpose. Look, if you're going for a definitive dessert occasion, spring the $2.50 for the cake flour to take it all the way. Ditto for decent chocolate. You don't save up to go to Hawaii and stay in the hotel room, you don't get your driver's license and insist on sitting in the back seat. If you're in, you're IN.

This is not really a new-to-baking recipe. But if you're feeling more confident in the kitchen than you did six months ago, why not give it a try when you have some time to devote to it? At the very worst it will end up as an intensely chocolatey goo that would be great on ice cream, or as intensely chocolatey crumbs - that would be great on ice cream. If this is a first-time effort on a more complicated recipe, don't promise to bring them to the neighborhood potluck. Who needs that kind of pressure? Commit to bringing napkins or bakery cupcakes, and wow them with these if you're happy with the result. Better yet, tell someone who knows how to use a double-boiler that you'll trade brownies for some company in the kitchen and a quick lesson.

1 cup (4 ounces) pecans or walnuts, chopped - optional
1 1/4 cups (5 ounces) cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped fine (not "bittersweet" - use unsweetened chocolate or "baking" chocolate. Ghirardelli or Lindt is preferred; Baker's chocolate is the Waikiki Holiday Inn)
12 tsp (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract - to experienced bakers this sounds like too much. It's not.

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 325 degrees. If your oven doesn't have a true middle, use the upper-middle.

2. Cut aluminum foil and fold lengthwise to 8-inch width. Fit foil into the length of a 13x9-inch baking pan; allow excess foil to hang over the pan edge. I stopped there and it worked fine; the recipe says to cut another length of foil to put width-wise in the pan. Do be sure to use at least one - the foil overhang serves as a handle to let you lift the brownies right out.

3. Spray foil-lined pan with nonstick cooing spray.

4. If using nuts, spread nuts evenly on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in the oven 5 - 8 minutes. So says the recipe - I say DO NOT let them go as long as 8 minutes. Nuts have a funny way of becoming toasted, then burnt, then just bursting into flame.

I will not entertain questions about this.

5. Whisk to combine flour, salt, and baking powder in medium bowl; set aside.

6. Melt chocolate and butter in large heatproof bowl/double boiler, stirring occasionally, until smooth. When chocolate mixture is completely smooth, remove bowl from saucepan and gradually whisk in sugar. Add eggs one at a time, whisking after each addition until thoroughly combined. Whisk in vanilla. Add flour in three additions, folding with rubber spatula until batter is completely smooth.

7. Transfer batter to prepared pan; using spatula, spread batter into corners of pan and smooth surface. Sprinkle toasted nuts (if using) evenly over batter and bake until toothpick or wooden skewer (dry spaghetti works, too!) inserted into center of brownies comes out with few moist crumbs attached, 30 to 35 minutes.

8. Cool on wire rack to room temperature, about 2 hours, then remove brownies from pan by lifting foil overhang. Slice into 2"x2" squares and serve.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Four-Minute Side Dish, With a "Parasol & A Julep" Variation

For some reason I've been craving sweet potatoes. Odd, because it's not often I crave something that's so healthful.

[Quick sidebar - the hot new thing in professional food is bringing in industrial bio-chem equipment to turn, say, noodles into noodle vapor, spinach into a foam, and tilapia into a cracker. And again I say where, WHERE is the magic that turns brimming-with-health-but-not-calories leafy greens into something chocolatey and fab and diet-friendly??? If only these powers could be used for good....]

Having done the prep work for tonight's dinner before Sweetie and I went out tonight, our entree (a bare-bones Chicken Cordon Bleu, sans stinky cheese) came together quickly. Wanting a decent and FAST side dish, I cut a sweet potato into six or seven chunks, put them in a small bowl with a little chicken broth (water or vegetable broth would work equally well), covered the bowl with Saran wrap and poked a few holes, and threw it in the microwave for 3 - 5 minutes. I left the skins on for reasons of health (more fiber) and laziness, but this works fine if the taters are peeled.

The sweet potatoes were soft, rich, thoroughly cooked, and a terrific accompaniment to chicken stuffed with ham and cheese.

If - like a certain colleague from New Jersey who had her first taste of Southern food this weekend - you want to make a more traditional sweet potato souffle, you can embellish this recipe and get pretty close to the Mary Mac's version with minimal fuss.

Steam the sweet potatoes as described above - use water instead of broth. Nuke for 3 minutes - poke the largest chunk with a sharp knife. If it goes in easily, your potatoes are ready. If not, cook longer, checking every 60 seconds.

Drain the water.

In the cooking bowl add 1 TBSP butter, 2 TBSP milk, 1 TBSP brown sugar or maple syrup (whichever you have handy) and 1/4 teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg. Whip potatoes with a hand mixer. This is an adaptable recipe, and you can change any of the seasonings to taste. If it's not soft enough, use a splash more milk and an extra half-dollop of butter. Want a little sharper spice taste? Add 1/8 teaspoon (or less) ground cloves. This should serve 2, using the one largeish sweet potato.

Like Shake & Bake, But Better

Those Shake & Bake people made a killing - about 15 cents worth of breadcrumbs and spices, and they boxed it up and made a fortune selling it for $2 a pop. Not too long ago I heard about a meeting where an investor simply refused to believe that there would ever be a market for frozen peanut butter & jelly sandwiches "because how HARD is it to make a PB&J? It takes 10 times as long for it to thaw as to make one fresh." Marketing experts quickly descended upon him and gave him an education on the vast disconnect many people have with their food.

Everyone has their priorities for their time, and Sweetie and I prioritize eating home-cooked food together. Granted during this busy season we often have to move papers off the table because we don't have time to cook AND clean, but so be it. In a few months we'll be able to sit down to a good dinner at a spotless table.

Last week my beloved flipped through my Better Homes & Gardens cookbook and found this fast, tasty recipe. People Who Cook A Lot will know about brining pork chops (soaking them in a salt water solution to make them juicier), but it's a pain and we're not dealing with that here. This recipe honestly came together in about 15 minutes.

This recipe is for 4 but can be easily halved or doubled. Lining the baking sheet with aluminum foil allows for easy cleanup; if you've done the math and determined that it is more environmentally friendly to do the extra washing rather than use disposable foil, have at it and leave the baking dish unlined.

Oven-Fried Pork Chops
Better Homes & Gardens cookbook

4 pork loin chops, cut 3/4 inch thick
2 TBSP melted butter OR cooking spray
1 beaten egg
2 TBSP millk (skim, whole, 2%, whatever - it doesn't matter)
1 cup stuffing mix or corn bread stuffing mixed, crushed (or make your own from regular bread - details below)

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Tear off a paper towel or two to have handy; when you're handling raw pork and raw egg, you'll want an easy way to wipe your hands if you need to grab the phone.

2. Line baking dish with aluminum foil; either spray foil with cooking spray OR pour melted butter over bottom of pan and swirl the pan to coat.

3. In a small dish combine one beaten egg, the milk, and some black pepper (2 or three shakes from a pepper shaker, 2 or 3 twists from a pepper grinder).

4. Place breadcrumbs on a plate.

Personally, I like to have the counter set up in production-line order and move left to right - pile of pork chops on the far left, egg/milk mixture next, then breadcrumbs, then baking dish.

5. Trim the fat from each pork chop. A little fat is fine, this is nothing to bring a magnifying glass to. Basically, as the fat melts in the hot oven it excretes grease, and we don't want a lot of grease messing up the breading.

6. Pick up a pork chop, dip it in the egg mixture and let some of the egg run off. Now dip one flat side of the chop in the breadcrumbs, then dip the other flat side in the bread crumbs. Place the chop on the baking sheet and move on to the next chop.

7. Bake the pork chops at 425 degrees for 10 minutes. Pull the sheet out of the oven, turn each chop over, and bake 10 minutes more.


If you're making your own breadcrumbs - toast 3 pieces of bread. Tear each slice into smaller pieces. Put those smaller pieces in either a blender or a mini food processor, put the lid on, and process until the crumbs are very small. You can also add 1/4 teaspoon of onion powder and/or oregano to make Italian breadcrumbs.

I only have bone-in chops. Can I use those?

Can I freeze the leftovers?
Not really. Unless you're flash-freezing commercially (e.g. boxed breaded fish filets), freezing a breaded entree isn't going to work all that well.

How do I reheat these? Just pop them in the microwave?
You can, and the chop will get hot, but the breading will get soggy. If you have the time turn your oven or toaster oven to 350 degrees and reheat for about 15 minutes.

[If you're really curious... the steam created in the microwave stays in the microwave and the breading absorbs that moisture and gets soggy. The oven is a drier environment, so the coating crisps.]

How can I add a little zip to these?
a) Add a little hot sauce (like Tabasco or Frank's Red Hot) to the egg mixture. And I do mean a little hot sauce!

b) Add a little cayenne pepper to the breadcrumbs.

c) When baking the pork chops throw some sliced onion on the baking sheet and spritz them with spray. They will caramelize nicely in the oven as the chops bake.

I halved the recipe, but I can't really halve an egg. What do I do with the extra?
An egg is literally about 15 cents. If you absolutely can't bear to waste part of it, make that decision before you touch raw meat to the egg.

Heat up a small skillet. Beat the one egg without any hot sauce, milk, etc. and pour half the beaten egg into the skillet and make a little scrambled egg. To the remaining beaten egg add 1 tablespoon of milk and proceed with the recipe.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Pasta - It's Not Just For Dinner

With gas at $4 a gallon and organic milk being much more than that, we're trying to cut costs wherever we can. And one of those cost-cutting areas is food, specifically having our leftovers be useful and not just nostalgic-then-icky.

And so, here I sit at 9:15 AM, having a bit of leftover breaded porkchop with some leftover spaghetti sauce and leftover ricotta cheese and some freshly-prepared whole wheat pasta for breakfast. It's a protein, a carb, and a form of a vegetable (sauce) and some calcium (cheese), right? Besides, I had last week's Learn To Cook Spinach & Ham Frittata for breakfast all week, so I'm ready for a break from eggs.

The Oven-Fried Pork Chops were excellent. Sweetie made this for dinner this past week and they hit the spot on a not-cold-but-turning-crisp evening. I don't know about y'all, but my parents used to use Shake & Bake when I was a kid - this reminded me of that, but better.

For this week's Learn To Cook/No-Fuss recipe, you'll need:
Pork loin chops, cut thick (3/4 inch or so)
EITHER butter or cooking spray (butter will have a richer taste, cooking spray will be fewer calories)
An egg
Stuffing mix, cornbread stuffing mix, or breadcrumbs. If you don't keep breadcrumbs on hand you can easily make them from regular bread, and we'll go over that.

Applesauce would be a great side dish, as would salad, mashed potatoes, and/or green beans.

Also, a big shout-out to our friend Stephanie (owner of www.thefrostedladybug.com cookie company) and her AMAZING cookout last weekend. You can't lose when you pair a gifted cook and a Big Green Egg.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

La La Frittata

This recipe is from Better Homes and Gardens, back in the early 90s. While it's no longer $.54 per serving like it was in 1992, it's still a very reasonably priced entree. Although not as thick as a quiche, it somehow seems more robust/flavorful.

And speaking of pricing... I feel like an investing genius for having filled my tank at $3.69 a few days ago. And now, of course, I don't want to drive anywhere - it's not just that it's hard to find gas under $4.20/gallon, it's that it's hard to find gas anywhere at any price. Maybe I should make some feel-better cookies, too....

Baked Spinach and Ham (or Not) Frittata

8 eggs or two 8-ounce cartons of frozen egg product, thawed
1/4 tsp dried basil crushed (that's skimpy - go to 1/2 tsp if you want to)
Two shakes or twists of black pepper
1/4 cup chopped onion (also optional)
1 TBSP butter OR 2 teaspoons vegetable oil (butter will have a richer taste)
1 10-ounce package frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well-drained (I unwrap the package, put it in a sieve, and let ambient temperature work its magic)
4 ounces thinly sliced, fully cooked ham or turkey ham, chopped (that's about 3 or 4 slices of deli ham)
1 TBSP grated Parmesan cheese

This isn't called for in the recipe, but I threw in a few spoonfuls of low-fat feta when I do the final mix. I have some that I need to use up, and who doesn't love feta with spinach?

For this recipe you will need an oven-proof skillet. That means that it can't have any plastic at all; check the handle carefully. I use a terrific All-Clad stainless skillet that I bought at Target or Linens & Things a few years ago.

Usually an ovenproof skillet will also have a lid without any plastic. Since you don't need to cover the skillet in the oven for this recipe, whatever lid you have is fine AS LONG AS the skillet itself doesn't have plastic.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Thaw and drain the spinach. Frozen spinach really holds a lot of water - you'll have to either press the spinach against a sieve or pick it up and wring it out with your hands.

3. In a medium bowl combine the eggs, basil, and pepper - stir until combined. Set aside. I like to add a few dashes of Frank's Red Hot sauce or Tabasco sauce at this point, too.

4. If using onion, chop the onion finely.

5. In a 10-inch ovenproof skillet cook onion in hot butter or oil until tender but not brown. They will lose their solid white color and look a little more see-through.

6. Remove the skillet from the heat (or, if using a gas stove, turn the burner off). Stir in the spinach and ham/turkey ham. Add the egg mixture to the skillet and stir.

7. Bake, uncovered, in a 350-degree oven about 15 minutes, or until a knife inserted near the center comes out clean. "Clean" is a relative term - when you pull the knife out it should not have runny egg liquid streaming down the blade.

8. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Cut into 8 wedges. Makes 4 servings.

My frittata is still soupy in the middle; I baked it for 15 minutes.
Yup, that happened to me, too, with this recipe. If it's pure liquid in the middle, set the timer for 4 minutes and check again. After that, check at 2 minute intervals - eggs go very quickly from soft to cooked to eeeewwwww. Gotta watch 'em.

Any side dish recommendations?
If you're serving this for breakfast I recommend a slice of whole-grain toast and/or some fruit, or even some breakfast potatoes. For lunch or dinner some carrot sticks or roasted carrots would be good. If you can still get decent tomatoes, then sliced fresh tomatoes on the side would be fabulous.

And can I get a hearty "amen" for entrees that can go to any meal, any time of day?

What other vegetables can I throw in here?
A frittata is a great way to use up leftover vegetables. Do be careful, though, that there's enough egg to hold everything together. To this recipe you could add another 1/4 cup of either mushrooms, bell pepper, or broccoli (or a combination of the three, as long as it totals no more than 1/4 cup).

Normally sundried tomatoes would go beautifully in a frittata, but with the ham and the cheese it would just be too many strongly-flavored ingredients in the same dish, which always ends up a mess.

As much as I love zucchini it's a no-go here; the frittata wouldn't firm up due to the excess water.

Could I use bacon instead of ham?
I guess... that's an awful lot of bacon...

Is this recipe bootcamp friendly?
In terms of protein, yes (21 grams per two-slice serving); fiber, no (0).

My frittata is dry and rubbery. What to do?Buy an oven thermometer to make sure your oven's idea of 350 degrees matches everyone else's idea of 350 degrees. Ditch the frittata and break out that frozen entree from yesterday's shopping list. It happens to all of us sooner or later...

Do you really need butter or oil? Won't a few spritzes of Pam do the job?
The cooking spray will cook the onion just fine. But try getting that blasted frittata out of the pan in any semblance of a "slice" without butter or oil. In my constant quest to cut calories I tried just using cooking spray, and needed some sort of Cooking Jaws of Life (OK, 3 different spatulas, but still) to get this baby out of the pan.

You've got multiple posts on this blog about how much your dog loves ham - she even sleeps with a little stuffed piggie toy. Can she tell when you're cooking with pork products?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Pleasure Of Your Company

A dear friend and colleague announced that she was taking me and another colleague to lunch. We were to ask no questions, she'd explain it all then. Was she leaving? Ill? The bearer of other disturbing news?

"I just wanted you two to know how much I appreciate you and value your friendship. That's it. But if I'd told you that was the reason, you would've just thanked me and worked through lunch."

So three busy women made a little sacred space in the day to enjoy one another, break bread, and revel in the blessing of friendship. What a wonderful gift, and a great reminder that my office should not also be my dining spot quite so often.

I'm so excited to have been invited to the home of one of the best cooks I know this evening, and I'm co-hosting a Girls Night dinner with a friend in the next two weeks - to Sweetie's delight, I take any opportunity to make a caramel cake. Community is a wonderful thing!

If you're following the Learn-To-Cook/No Fuss weekends, just a quick reminder that we're on our SIXTH entree recipe! If you've mastered these, or even half of them, you are ready to cook for friends. Supplement with frozen or take-out foods, it doesn't matter. Glasses that match don't matter and paper vs. cloth napkins is a dealer's choice. What matters is having the people you care about around the table.

So anyway - entree #6 is Baked Spinach and Ham Frittata. If you hate ham leave it out. If you don't eat pork, use turkey ham OR crumbled turkey breakfast sausage OR crumbled soy breakfast sausage (and let me know how that goes... I've had my qualms about that). After one more Learn-To-Cook entree, which will be one for each night of the week, we'll move onto side dishes.

For tomorrow's recipe you'll need:
Eggs (just buy a dozen)
Dried basil
Frozen chopped spinach
Thinly sliced ham, turkey ham, or cooked & crumbled sausage
Grated Parmesan cheese - if you have the resources & opportunity to get a block of Parmesan, go for it. It's SO flavorful and worth it! Pre-shredded Parmesan in the little tub is the next best choice.
As always, a frozen pizza or other dinner to take the pressure off of cooking a new recipe.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Marketing 101 - Know Your Audience

In nice weather I like to exit the train one stop early and walk the rest of the way to my office. Of course, this is downtown with all the eccentricities and local color of any big-city downtown.

A man was stretched out against a building, smoking, and holding out a cup of change. I gave him wide berth, as I'm very sensitive to smoke.

"Oh, if only I had the money to quit cigarettes!" Shake, rattle...

Bonus points for quick thinking. No money, but bonus points.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Mmmmmmmexican Chicken

Going to the Kosher Barbecue Cookoff wasn't on my to-do list, but how could we not go to something I've never heard of before that might be really great?? I'll report back.

The Mexican Chicken is easy, easy, easy. You can feel good about the protein and low fat content of the chicken and the high iron content of the black beans. Vitamin C - which tomatoes have in abundance - help the body to better absorb iron. Fiber? Corn and black beans. It's covered.

This dish can be as spicy or as not-spicy as you wish. Want cheese? Go ahead and add some - cheddar or Monterey Jack would work best. Kraft Cracker Barrel is an outstanding low-fat cheddar cheese that has, unfortunately, skyrocketed in price.

Two quick words about pre-shredded cheese: it sucks. It's dry and chalky and flavorless and gets a weird whitish look to it. Way expensive, too. If you find the grater for shredding cheese a pain to clean, a) use a larger hole/shred and b) pop the cheese in the freezer for 10 minutes before you shred.

You're going to have to eyeball this one on quantities since it's a Stephanie Original.

Mexican Chicken
2 chicken breasts OR 1 pound chicken thighs [chicken breasts will be lower fat and some people consider them less flavorful; chicken thighs will be richer-tasting but have a higher fat content - cut the yellow fat away if you're using thighs]
1 jar of salsa OR tomatoes, one onion, and one bell pepper
1 small can of corn
1 can of black beans

Optional - oregano, chili powder, cumin, sour cream, cheese

Have the following equipment available: A cutting board, a sharp knife, a small bowl, a large skillet with a lid, a can opener, a spatula to turn the chicken, a large spoon for serving

1. IF YOU'RE MAKING YOUR OWN SALSA, YOU SASSY COOK, YOU: Get a small bowl. If you're using diced tomatoes open the can and drain the tomato liquid out. Add the diced tomato to the bowl. If you're using fresh tomatoes, cut the tomatoes - except the stem - and drain some of the juice off. Some cookbooks will tell you they should have the skin removed, but it's a lot of work and you lose the fiber of the skin that way. But really, it's just too much work. Add to the bowl.

Remove the papery skin of the onion. Holding the onion stem-side down, cut a small (2-inch long) sliver on one side. Rest the onion on that now-flat side. Cut into small pieces as much of the onion as you wish to use - start with a quarter cup and add more later if it needs more zing.

Add the onion to the diced tomato.

Get your bell pepper - orange, yellow, and red peppers are sweet, green are more robust and less sweet. Remove the stem, then - over the sink - cut the pepper in half lengthwise (cutting the empty stem-hole into a half-circle). Scrape out the seeds and the white pith/membranes. Cut the pepper into small pieces and add to the tomato and onion.

Congrats! You've made salsa! You could totally serve this with corn chips and sangria if you wanted to.


Open the can of black beans. Drain the icky liquid; you may need to rinse the beans a few times with cold tap water. I leave the lid partially on, hold it down while I let the liquid run out, then rinse a few times, swishing the water around in the can. The other way to do it is to pour the beans into a colander, then gently run cold water over them.

Open the can of corn and drain. If you're using the colander method you can just pour the corn over the beans.

Spray the skillet with non-stick spray. Heat the skillet on medium heat (4ish on an electric stovetop).

Add the chicken to the skillet. It should sizzle a little when you sprinkle a few drops of water in the skillet. Add the chicken to the hot pan. Let it cook for 8 minutes, then turn each piece of chicken over.

Turn the heat down a little - 3 on an electric stovetop. Add your salsa - either homemade or jarred - the corn, and the black beans. If you're using oregano, cumin, and/or chili powder, this is the time to add your spices.

Cover the skillet and let it heat all the way through. This should take 10 minutes or so. Take a sharp knife to the thickest piece of chicken - if it's no longer pink, it's done. If you have a meat thermometer see if the thickest part of the chicken is 180 degrees.

Your serving options are pretty adaptable. You can cut the chicken into small pieces... or not. You can serve as-is, right out of the skillet. You can make some rice and serve over that... but you don't have to. You can drape some cheese on top of the chicken... or not. Want to wrap some chicken & salsa-ed veggies in a tortilla with some cheese? Go for it.

My dish is too spicy!
Add sour cream (AFTER you have taken the skillet off the heat). Milk-based products help cut the heat. Low-fat sour cream is usually a good bet; Daisy and Breakstone make good LF sour cream. I've never found a decent fat-free sour cream, they're all dreadful - sweet (???), gummy, off-smelling. Ick.

My dish is kinda bland.
Add the chili powder, cumin, and oregano. Start with 1/2 teaspoon of each, and see where that gets you - add more if you wish.

Got cilantro? Chop some (2 or 3 sprigs to start) and add it in. A little lime juice kicks up the flavor nicely, too.

If you're looking for heat add chopped jalapenos. The jalapenos can be added after cooking - you can just add them to leftovers if you want, they don't have to be "cooked in."

I tried to make a tortilla wrap, but my tortilla wasn't bendy like it should be.
You know, I learned the trick to this the first time I made enchiladas. Unless you make tortillas fresh from scratch in your kitchen - I sure don't - they need to be steamed or dipped in boiling water. I wrap a tortilla in a wet paper towel and put it in the microwave for 10 to 15 seconds; that makes it soft and pliable and ready for filling and rolling.

Can I use dried black beans in this recipe?
Technically, yes. The difference is that you have to start soaking dried beans the day before - and cook them for a long time. Dried beans are less expensive and, for a Learn To Cook/No-Fuss recipe, more work than I think folks are looking for.

If you have dried black beans that you're trying to use up scroll down to the recipe for Ham and Bean soup. It calls for a 7-bean (or 12-bean or whatever) blend, but you can make it with just dried black beans.

Have a great week!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Neutrals or Vibrant Jewel Tones?

A dear friend called me recently, needing a little relief from a wildly misbehaving child and wildly misbehaving plumbing (no known relationship between the two... so far). Yes, it has been a weird summer for her - but "weird" can also mean "colorful", right? Life's tapestry can be safe, soothing neutrals or strong, deep, vibrant colors or, most likely, some of both. It's the super-fun and really bad and just plain odd times that give it texture and interest and contrast and life.

Too deep? Probably. Is 4:00 too early for a mojito???

This week's Learn To Cook/No-Fuss recipe is a vibrantly colored, boldly flavored Mexican Chicken. This can easily convert to steak or, probably, shrimp. I wouldn't try this one with salmon or any other strongly-flavored fish. For simplicity's sake I'm writing this for chicken - and yes, this is truly a Stephanie-made-it-up recipe that resulted from needing to make dinner with whatever was onhand because I was not, by God, NOT going to the grocery store - again - in the rain. So there.

You'll need:
* Chicken breasts or chicken thighs
* EITHER tomatoes (canned or fresh)/one bell pepper (your favorite color)/one onion OR one jar of salsa at your preferred level of spiciness
* Corn - either two ears of fresh corn OR one 8ish-ounce can of corn kernels (not creamed corn)
* One can of black beans - personally, I don't really care about my black beans being organic, but I've found that the grocery store brand of organic beans has much, much less sodium than any other kind of canned black bean
* Cumin, chili powder, and oregano - all optional
* Sour cream and cheese - both optional
* Rice (white or brown) OR tortillas
* As always, a frozen entree to take the pressure off of you while you're cooking a new recipe. It will turn out great and your family/roommate/self will just love it, but why stress yourself out with worrying that you'll starve tonight if it happens to mess itself up?

I haven't tried freezing this because we never have enough leftovers to freeze - this makes wonderful lunches to bring to work.

So... where's that rum and lime juice?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

From Experience...

Sometimes a good idea needs to be carried a little further.

1994ish, or whenever Hurricane Andrew hit, my office was collecting items for hurricane relief (that was before the days where everyone just wanted cash). As I ran through Publix I picked up a few of the regular flood/hurricane items - baby formula, bleach for disinfecting, latex gloves - and I threw in a bag of Hershey's kisses on a whim.

It's the humane thing to do.

I mean, I can hardly get through a sad movie or a disappointing day at the office without a little chocolate to make me feel better. A natural disaster and no brownies or Moose Tracks ice cream or anything??? At that point the terrorists have won.

Since then, at every opportunity I throw in a bag of wrapped chocolates for disaster relief. It matters, and I'm sure someone feels loved and understood and a touch less surreal when they get that little bit of sweetness and normalcy.

Now that I'm on the evacuation/response planning side of things I see I didn't take that idea far enough. There are a lot of people packed into small rooms, warily eyeing the Weather Channel, figuring out what roads to shut down and if and when to move people out. And they need chocolate.

A few weeks ago I made the best brownie recipe that this world has ever seen. I hereby nominate Cook's Illustrated for a Nobel and a Pulitzer for the recipe. My mother-in-law, an admitted and devoted chocoholic, swooned over those brownies. My office loved them. And I will post the recipe, I promise, when I'm not so tired... and after I've brought a bag of Special Darks to the next meeting.

Chocolate matters.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Comfort Food When Comfort Is Needed


It was the Monday night of Labor Day Weekend three years ago when my phone rang and my manager said, "I need you to go to the United Way tomorrow for the big Hurricane Katrina meeting. Do whatever needs to be done." Thus began a two-week period of minimal food and sleep and many, many hours of working with stunned, disoriented, shattered people displaced from their native Louisiana or Alabama and not at all sure what to do next.

There was the man who had his grandmother, and his grandmother's neighbor's children, with him and no way of contacting the children's mother. The 18-year-old who hadn't tracked down his parents but was determined to get his younger brother and sister into school.

And of course there was the man who told me that, every day, he would call every number programmed into his cell phone just to see if anyone answered and was therefore still alive. That morning one of his friends answered and the conversation went like this:

Man: You're alive! [per him, that was the standard greeting at that point]
Friend: Yup. I just can't believe all this. Where are you?
Man: Georgia. Atlanta. You?
Friend: South Carolina. Don't know anybody. You know, until three days ago I hadn't ever left New Orleans. Now I've been on a plane, I'm in South Carolina, and apparently I can swim!

It appears that any people and organizations are much better prepared for this storm than they were for Katrina, and amen for that. I serve on a planning team for disaster planning for special needs populations, and on Friday I was developing a survey to ask people what they would need in an evacuation, how they're notified of emergencies, etc.

Difficult times often call for comfort food, and for some people that's a good roast with carrots and potatoes, for other it's French Silk Pie and for others (me!!!) macaroni and cheese hits the spot (specifically the thigh and hip). In the smooth/creamy mac & cheese family is this:

Cooking Light, 2007

6 ears corn
2 cups 1% low-fat milk
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 slices bacon
1 cup chopped leek

1. Cut kernels from ears of corn to measure 3 cups.

2. Using the dull side of a knife blade, scrape milk and remaining pulp from cobs into a bowl. Place 1 1/2 cups kernels, low-fat milk, cornstarch, sugar, salt, and pepper in a food processor; process until smooth, scraping sides.

3. Cook bacon in a large cast-iron skillet over medium heat until crisp, turning once. Remove the bacon from pan, reserving 1 teaspoon drippings in pan; crumble bacon.

4. Add leek to pan, and cook 2 minutes or until tender, stirring constantly.

5. Add pureed corn mixture, remaining 1 1/2 cups corn kernels, and corn milk mixture to pan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer for 3 minutes or until slightly thick, stirring constantly. Sprinkle with the crumbled bacon just before serving.

6 servings (serving size: 2/3 cup)

Nutritional Information
CALORIES 151(27% from fat); FAT 4.6g (sat 1.7g,mono 1.9g,poly 0.8g); IRON 0.8mg; CHOLESTEROL 9mg; CALCIUM 111mg; CARBOHYDRATE 23.1g; SODIUM 325mg; PROTEIN 7g; FIBER 2.4g