Scalloped Potatoes with Cold Cuts

I haven’t been making regular trips to the grocery store lately.  Time constraints mixed with a dash of laziness is a recipe for invention.  Despite the lack of grocery shopping, my pantry and refrigerator are still full of all sorts of odds and ends, which is a good thing. 

This meal came together quickly and it provided a warm, hearty end to a cold and dreary day.  This was made to serve three, but it could stretch to serve four.  The various cold cuts added to this dish turned simple scalloped potatoes into something special.

Ingredients:

3 large russet potatoes

3 cups cooking oil

6 oz cold cuts (capocollo, calabrese, pepper salami and cured ham)

1 tsp coarse salt

½ tsp whole black pepper

½ tsp Cavender’s Greek Seasoning

5 green onions

1 celery stalk

4 Tbs butter

4 Tbs flour

2 cups chicken stock

¼ cup heavy cream

Directions:

Peel the potatoes and slice them into ¼ discs. 

Fry the potatoes in the cooking oil.  Once the potatoes begin to turn golden brown, strain them and set aside.

While the potatoes cook, prepare the other ingredients.

Cut the cold cuts into ½” pieces.  Set aside.

Chop the celery and green onions.  Set aside.

Grind the salt, pepper and Cavender’s Greek seasoning in a mortar and pestle.  Set aside.

Using the same skillet that was used to fry the potatoes, turn the heat to low and add the butter.  When the butter melts, add the flour and whisk to form a roux.

When the roux begins to bubble and becomes frothy, add the seasonings.  Whisk.

Slowly introduce 1 cup of the chicken stock and whisk.  Add the cream and continue whisking.  As the sauce thickens, add the remaining cup of chicken stock.  Whisk until the sauce thickens again. 

Add the celery and green onions and stir to incorporate.

Add the cold cuts and stir.  Simmer for about 3 minutes, while stirring occasionally.

Fold in the potatoes and simmer for a few minutes.

Scoop out portions to serving bowls. 

Extra Pasta – Braised Beef in Marinara

I had lots of left over penne rigate from the other day and I decided to bring it back for another spin.  The pasta was originally sautéed with diced tomatoes, garlic and anchovy and then tossed in a satiny-buttery sauce.  The dish was simple and mild, which makes it a great starter for this bolder dish.

This is a quick meal, especially because the pasta was already cooked.  Thinly sliced beef cooks in a matter of a few minutes.  From start to finish, including the salad, this took about 30 minutes to make.  The cotija cheese is used like dried Parmesan in this recipe.  It adds a slightly sharp flavor and it helps to thicken the sauce. 

Ingredients:

1 Tbs olive oil

4 green onions (separate the white and green portions)

16 oz tomato sauce

1 Tsp Italian seasoning

8 oz can of sliced mushrooms

Thinly sliced beef

½ cup cotija cheese

16 oz cooked pasta (penne rigate)

Directions:

Dice green onions.  Separate the white parts from the green.  Set the green parts aside.

In a large skillet, set to medium heat, add olive oil and sauté the white parts of the green onions for one minute. 

Add tomato sauce, Italian seasoning and mushrooms.  Simmer for 5 minutes. 

Add cotija cheese and whisk to incorporate.  Simmer for an additional 5 minutes.

Remove sauce to a bowl and keep warm.

Add 1 Tbs olive oil to the pan.  Set heat to high.  Add the strips of beef and stir constantly  until cooked to  rare (about 2 minutes).

Return the sauce to the pan, turn the heat to low and stir with the meat for a few minutes.

Add the cooked pasta to the skillet and stir to coat the pasta with the sauce.

Turn the mixture out to a serving bowl and top with green onions and a dusting of cotija cheese. 

Serve with a fresh salad.

Smoked Cornish Game Hens

I love the smell of smoke drifting through the neighborhood.  I especially like it when it emanates from my own backyard!  There is something about the change from summer to fall that makes me want to cook fowl outdoors.  Chicken, turkey, whatever.  This recipe combines bright citrus tones, savory spices and a gentle, smoky flavor. 

Ingredients:

2 Cornish game hens

Marinade for the hens (see below)

Marinade Ingredients:

3 cups olive oil

3 full heads of garlic, peeled and smashed

3 oranges

3 lemons

3 limes

1 cup orange juice

¼ cup rosemary, chopped

¼ cup kosher salt

¼ cup coarse black pepper

2 star anise pods

1 Thai cinnamon stick

Directions:

Zest the citrus fruit

Add the juice and zest from the fruit to a bowl.  Add the orange juice and oil to the bowl.

Using a mortar and pestle, grind the rosemary, salt, black pepper, anise and cinnamon. 

Add the ground seasonings to the bowl, along with the juice and zest.

finished marinade

Keep the rinds and pulp from the fruit to use as an aromatic.  In a large pot of water, add rinds and pulp.  Set heat to very low and add other aromatics, such as cinnamon sticks, star anise, sage, all spice berries…really, anything that strikes your fancy.

Put on stove, low heat…fill the house with the aroma!

Cut the hens in half, (remove back bones and split the bird in half with a large kitchen knife).

whole hen
Pretty side up!

Marinate the chicken for 12 hours, or overnight.  Turn the chicken occasionally, to allow the marinade to soak in.

Refrigerate overnight

I used oak for the smoking process.  Oak lends a nice smoky flavor without imparting a heavy flavor.  I didn’t bother measuring or monitoring the temperature of the coals or the smoker, or the birds.  I knew that I had used plenty of coals and that the birds would cook evenly, since they were split.  Smoking meat this way is not advised but,  I happened to be in a very confident mood that day and I turned everything over to fate. 

Directions for smoking the birds:

Start a batch of charcoal for a smoker.  Hot charcoals maintain even and steady heat for the smoker and they ignite the wood, used for the smoke.  Once the coals are hot (gray), add some pieces of oak.  Let the oak char for about 20 minutes.  Add some more oak and char for another 15 minutes.  Once the wood has turned into nice coals and the smoke has thinned a little, prepare the grill for smoking.

On a clean grill, add the hens, cut side down, with leg portions pointed toward the center of the grill.  Smoke the birds for 1 ½ hours.  I finished cooking in a 300° oven for 15 minutes, just to make sure that they were cooked all the way through.

Let the hens rest for a few minutes before separating into breasts, legs and wings.

Serve with pasta with fresh tomato sauce, garden salad and warm Jalapeño Cheddar Cheese Bread with pads of butter.

Pasta with Fresh Tomato Sauce:

Summer is gone but I still enjoy the taste of fresh tomatoes from the garden.  That’s because I filled a 2 gallon storage bag with ripe tomatoes.  I didn’t wash the tomatoes before freezing them.  Whenever I want a tomato, I open the bag, pull one out, let it thaw at room temperature for about 15 minutes and then I rinse it under tap water.  The skin peels off right away and I’m left with a wonderful, fresh tomato.  For this recipe, I used two tomatoes.

Ingredients:

2 *fresh* tomatoes

1 lb penne rigate

1 anchovy (packed in oil)

3 garlic cloves, smashed

1 tsp olive oil

2 Tbs butter

½ tsp dried oregano leaves

½ tsp dried basil leaves

½ cup feta cheese

Directions:

Boil water in a large pot.  Add the penne rigate and cook to al dente.  Drain the water but do not rinse.  Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water.

While the pasta cooks…

Chop tomatoes into ½” pieces.  Set aside.

Crush anchovy and garlic together in a mortar and pestle.  Set aside.

In a large skillet, set to medium/low heat, add olive oil.  Add half of the tomatoes, garlic and anchovy. Cook down to a sauce (about 10 minutes). 

Add a cup of pasta water and cook down for another 5 minutes. 

Add the spices and butter.  Simmer for a few minutes and simmer for a few more minutes. 

Add the cooked pasta and stir to coat the pasta.

Turn out to a serving bowl and top with feta cheese.

Jalapeño and Cheddar Cheese Bread

My wife makes this bread and it doesn’t sit on the table very long!  Next time she makes it, I’ll pay better attention and share the recipe along with directions.  It’s always the highlight to any meal it accompanies!

Quick Chick & Shrimp

Several days ago, as I was driving home after an arduous, long day of work, I wondered what I should do for dinner.  It was just going to be my wife and I for dinner.   I started to think about fish.  And then, I thought about shrimp, and then I realized that what I was wanting was something akin to the classic British, “fish and chips”.  Then I thought about mac and cheese, and how that mac and cheese goes so well with fried shrimp, or fried fish.  And then, I realized I didn’t have any fish.  Chicken.  Yes, chicken, instead of fish.  The synapses in my brain jump around in quirky ways like that most of the time.  I really enjoy my drives home, except when I find myself driving next to people texting on their cell phones!

I allowed myself an hour to prepare the meal.  Time at home is precious for me during this busy part of the year.  I typically have about 4 to 5 hours after I get home to prepare a meal, eat it and digest it before I trot off to bed.   

Mac and cheese…check.  Chicken and shrimp…a quick prep and fry…check.  Steamed broccoli…a few minutes in the microwave…check.

The most time consuming part of the meal was the mac and cheese.  The rest was a flurry of flour and cornmeal and chopping a few things.  Easy.

I made enough mac and cheese for six people and I made enough chicken and shrimp for two or three.

My son and his girlfriend joined us, just as we were cleaning up after dinner.  We had enough chicken and shrimp left to share and plenty of mac and cheese.  It was all gone in a matter of a few minutes.  Mac and cheese saved the day…Perfect!

Ingredients:

1 ½ cup fresh broccoli

½ cup cooking oil

2 medium sized chicken breasts, thinly sliced

10 raw jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 1/2 cup flour

1/3 cup cornmeal

2 eggs

1 tsp garlic powder

½ tsp cayenne pepper

Directions:

Cut the broccoli into large, bite-sized pieces.  Place in a microwave safe bowl.  Seal with plastic wrap and set aside.

Cut chicken into 3” to 4” pieces. 

Butterfly cut the shrimp.  I do a back butterfly, cutting into the backside, instead of the underside.  Set aside.

Heat the oil in a skillet at medium/high heat.

Pour the flour onto a plate.  Dredge the chicken in flour, egg and then flour again.  Drop chicken in pan and pan fry to golden brown, remove to a paper towel lined plate.  Keep warm.

Add the cornmeal to the remaining flour and mix with a fork.

Dredge the shrimp in flour and cornmeal mixture, egg and then flour and cornmeal mixture again.  Drop the shrimp into the hot oil and cook for about 1 minute, or until the shrimp begins to brown and feels firm to the touch.

Lay the shrimp on the paper towel lined plate, along with the chicken, and keep warm.

Put the covered broccoli in the microwave and cook for about 2 minutes, or until the broccoli has softened. Serve with mac and cheese and ketchup or spicy ketchup. 

Macaroni and Cheese with Crumbled Bacon

Maybe it’s because I’m a guy, but I see mac and cheese like a good pair of blue jeans.  It goes with everything and any occasion.  Just as you can wear blue jeans with a worn out t-shirt, or a sweatshirt, or a pull-over sweater, or a crisply ironed shirt and tie, so goes mac and cheese. 

Mac and cheese rarely takes top billing, when it comes to planning a dinner but I guarantee that if it’s really good mac and cheese, you won’t have any leftovers.

True to my style, I prepare mac and cheese differently almost every time I make it.  I can’t tell you how many bad versions I’ve made but I can say I have made some good ones.  I have a tendency to let my free spirit roam and I start improvising, even when I have a perfectly good recipe in front of me.  I guess that’s what makes me, me.  If you want to make really good mac and cheese, follow the recipe by Kelsey Nixon, from the Food Network.  https://www.kelseynixon.com/mac-cheese/

Kelsey’s recipe is easy to follow and, as far as I’m concerned, flawless.  The secret is Muenster cheese.  Muenster cheese is perhaps the best melting cheese ever.  And, if you learn nothing else from that recipe, know that homemade mac and cheese starts with a béchamel (white sauce).  A béchamel is simply a roux with warm milk added to it.

I didn’t have Muenster on hand this time so I opted for Colby-Jack.  Both Colby-Jack and cheddar cheese melt well but if over-heated they can break down, and there goes the lovely cheese sauce. 

I should also note that I did not take photos throughout the cooking process.  I was hungry and I was in a hurry.  Such is the life of a working man.

1 Tbs kosher salt

2 cups elbow macaroni

3 strips cooked bacon

¼ cup butter

¼ cup all-purpose flour

4 cups milk

1 tsp dry mustard (essential!)

1 Tbs hot sauce

8 oz sharp cheddar cheese

8 ounces Colby-Jack cheese

In a 4 quart pot, boil water and add kosher salt.  Add pasta and cook until soft…just a bit beyond al dente.  Reserve 1/3 cup water from cooked pasta and set aside.  Strain the pasta and set aside.

In a large heavy saucepan, over medium/low heat add the butter.  Once the butter has melted, add the flour to make a roux.  Heat for just a minute or two. 

Heat the milk in the microwave, or stove top, to near boiling.  Slowly introduce 3 cups of the milk to the roux.  Turn the heat down (or off) while adding and mixing the milk.  Add the pasta water and dry mustard (and a little black pepper if you like).  Add the hot sauce and stir to combine.  Turn the heat up and bring the sauce to a boil.  Once the sauce begins to boil, turn the heat down.

Set the heat to low and slowly add the Colby-Jack and sharp cheddar cheese.  Gently stir with a spatula but do not over stir.  Low heat and minimal stirring helps reduce the possibility of the sauce breaking.  Add the other cup of warm milk and gently stir.  Add the pasta and stir to coat the pasta. 

Turn out to an oven proof serving bowl and place in a 350° oven for 15 minutes.

Remove from oven and top with crumbled bacon

I served this with steamed broccoli, bite-sized fried chicken and crunchy, fried shrimp.

Chicken on a Stick

I usually don’t start thinking about what to make for dinner until I’m in the car, on my way home.  On a good day, it’s a 20 minute trip.  When there’s heavy traffic it can take 40 minutes.  The good thing about the drive home is that I pass my favorite grocery store ALDI.  I will sometimes pop in to buy just a few items and then head on to the house. 

On this particular day, I didn’t want to make any stops.  I just wanted to get home.  I wasn’t coming up with any ideas for dinner and my mind started to wander.  By the time I pulled into the driveway, I knew what I was going to do. 

I wouldn’t call this a meal, because it’s just chicken on a stick but, it was something that I wanted to try and I knew that it wouldn’t take too long to make.

I decided on making this two different ways.  I wanted to see if I preferred the marinated version or the version that uses a dry rub for the chicken.  As it turns out, I liked both. 

Ingredients (for both versions):

1 lb. chicken breast meat, sliced in 1” long strips

1 lb bacon

3 Tbs brown sugar

1 Tbs chili powder

1 Tbs cayenne powder

12 wooden skewers

Version 1:

Ingredients for the marinade:

3 Tbs soy and 2 Tbs hot sauce

Version 2:

Ingredients for the dry rub:

2 Tbs chili powder, 1 Tbs garlic powder, 1 tsp cumin, ½ tsp paprika

Note: after tasting this, I will use ½ tsp cumin next time.  I like cumin but it overpowered the other flavors.

Directions:

Soak the wooden skewers in water for at least 15 minutes.

Cut the chicken in 1” thick strips.  Divide equally.

Mix the marinade ingredients and pour over one half of the chicken.  Marinate for 30 minutes.

Mix the ingredients for the rub.  Cover the other half of the chicken with the rub.  Set aside.

Mix the brown sugar, chili powder and cayenne powder together.  Lay the bacon on a clean surface.   Sprinkle both sides of the bacon with the sugar and chill powder mixture.

Set the oven to 350°.  Lay a metal rack on a backing sheet. 

Wrap a slice of bacon around a piece of chicken and run a skewer through one end of the chicken and then pierce the other end.  Lay the skewered chicken on the rack.  Continue wrapping and skewering the chicken.  Once the rack is full, put it in the oven.

Bake for to 20 to 25 minutes, or until the bacon begins to crisp and the chicken feels firm. 

Remove the chicken to a serving platter.  Serve with a dip of your choice.