Easter – Mac and Cheese

Well, our first major holiday during the pandemic is nearly over and I hope everyone is safe and well.  I thought that maybe this was our second holiday, considering the pandemic was on the rise during Valentine’s Day but, I believe we were still in “discovery mode” during that time.  The virus was mostly abroad and we only had a few cases reported in the United States.  It’s amazing how quickly our perception changed.

Churches are not having services, which is very odd, especially during a religious holiday.  Many families are separated from each other and there are unfilled seats at our dinner tables.  I’m thankful for our phones and the internet because we still have the ability to reach out to those we love.

But, enough of all that.  This is a food blog.  Let’s dig in.

I am fortunate that my daughter was available to help make this dish.  She’s a mac and cheese aficionado and I was thrilled to have her on my team!

This is a variation of the recipe I posted several months ago.  If you want to see the original post, click here.  The original recipe calls for 2 cups of dry macaroni noodles and I only had 1 ¾ cups this time, so I scaled some of the other ingredients down accordingly and made a few substations.

Easter Mac and Cheese

Ingredients:

3 strips thinly sliced bacon

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 ¾ cups elbow macaroni

¼ cup butter

2 tsp bacon fat

¼ cup flour

3 ½ cups whole milk

½ tsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp Tabasco sauce

8 oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated

8 oz queso Chihuahua (white Mexican cheese), grated

Directions:

Cut the 3 slices of raw bacon into 2” pieces with a sharp knife.  Add the bacon pieces to a small frying pan.  Crowding the pan is recommended because the bacon needs to be cooked at the lowest heat setting and the resulting bacon fat will help regulate the temperature.  Frying the bacon at low heat will  help ensure that the bacon and the bacon fat does not burn.

Add freshly ground black pepper to the bacon.  I probably used between ¼ and ½ teaspoons.  The pepper will flavor the bacon and the fat that it produces.

Remove the bacon once it has become firm.  Set aside.  Reserve the fat for later.

Reserve the bacon fat.

Boil the elbow macaroni in a large pot of water. 

While the macaroni boils, heat the milk in a microwave oven for about a minute or two.  The goal is to warm the milk to about 120°, or just a little hotter than bath water.  Set the milk aside.

Strain the macaroni after it has become soft.  Leave the macaroni in a colander and reserve at least 1/3 cup of the starchy water.

In the same large pot, now empty, add the butter and bacon fat.  Set the heat to low and simmer for a minute. 

Add the flour and whisk, to form a roux. 

Slowly add warm milk, while whisking.  Turn the heat to medium high and keep whisking for a few minutes while the sauce thickens.

Add the Tabasco sauce and mustard.  Whisk to incorporate.  Once the sauce has thickened, turn the heat to low.

Slowly add the grated cheese.  Stir slowly, with a spatula, as the cheese is added. 

When the cheese has melted, add the macaroni and fold, to coat the macaroni.

Pour the mac and cheese in an oven-proof backing dish and bake at 350° for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it starts to bubble.

Remove from the oven and top with crumbled bacon.

Serve with love!

Happy Easter.

Rockin’ the Kitchen!

As I mentioned recently, my wife and I are working for “essential” industries.  We are still putting in regular hours at our respective companies.  Working in an environment that involves close human contact at a time like this can be nerve racking.  Sure, when we are at work, we focus on the jobs that need to be done.  But, when we come home we think of the risks we take each day we go to work.

We are not exceptional.  Many people are experiencing similar types of anxiety.  We all deal with it in our own ways.   

A few days ago, after a mere 4 hours of sleep, my wife awoke at the crack of dawn and went straight to the kitchen.  She spent the next 10 hours baking.  When my wife bakes, or cooks for that matter, the result is always impressive.  This particular baking marathon was fueled by her love of our family and her need to occupy herself with something meaningful.  It surely wasn’t fueled by a good night’s sleep!

It was therapy.  It was determination.  It was well-honed skill mixed with passion and promise.

The results were remarkable and very tasty!

* A deep dish cherry pie

* A pecan pie

* 4 loaves of jalapeño and cheddar cheese bread

* 2 casserole dishes of manicotti

Weekend Leftovers (and the Daily News)

I hate to say it but, it’s the weekend and I have too many leftovers in the refrigerator.  That’s a great thing for a weekday, when time is precious for us working folks, like us.  Yes, my wife and I have been deemed “essential” by the powers that be, but it drives me nuts when the weekend arrives and I discover that leftovers have overtaken the fridge .  This is my weekend crisis, along with worrying about the ever-expanding, impending virus.

A good weekend, for me, is when I get to play in the kitchen and make some food that can turn into leftovers for the upcoming week. 

But, today, it’s necessary to scoop together a meal from all of the leftovers.

How could I possibly tie all of these leftovers together to make a single, cohesive meal?  There’s shrimp in a garlic butter sauce with noodles, scalloped potatoes with ham and a chicken salad, intended for sandwiches.  Three mish-mash leftovers with only one or two servings each, among them.

I say, tie them together with some fresh bread.  Garlic bread should work.  Half of the bread for a small bread loaf and the other half for garlic knots, or in this case, a braided garlic loaf.  Add some fresh lettuce and we have a brand new meal!  Leftovers can always be boosted by adding a splash of something fresh.

Garlic Bread / Garlic Braid

Ingredients:

1 cup warm water

2 Tbs yeast

1 tsp olive oil

3 cups flour

2 Tbs garlic powder

Pinch of salt

1 quart prepared shrimp with pasta, with garlic butter sauce

1 pint prepared ham and scalloped potatoes

1 pint prepared chicken salad

Fresh lettuce, (any kind will do)

¼ cup olive oil

5 garlic cloves

Directions:

Prepare the bread dough by warming a cup of water and adding yeast and olive oil.  Set in a warm place to allow the yeast to activate for 20 minutes. Add water and yeast to a large mixing bowl and add the flour and salt.

Mix and knead for a minute.  Sprinkle garlic powder over the dough ball, cover with a towel and allow the dough to rise for 15 minutes in a warm place.

Knead dough again to incorporated the garlic powder.  Cover and keep warm for 30 minutes.

Heat an oven to 400°.

Knead the dough and divide in half.  Set one half aside.

Take one half and divide into thirds.  Roll each third into ropes, making one rope slightly larger than the other two.

Lay the ropes of dough on a clean surface, with the longest rope in the middle.  Braid the dough in a French braid. 

Lay the braided dough on a baking sheet and bake in the oven.

Take the remaining dough and form into an oblong loaf.  Place on a baking sheet and place it in the oven.

Bake for 20 minutes.

While the bread bakes, add chopped garlic to the olive oil and heat in the microwave for about 1 minute.  Carefully remove the olive oil and set aside.

Pull the braided loaf out of the oven and leave the other loaf in the oven for another 5 minutes.

Heat the shrimp and pasta in a covered pan, with a little splash of water.

Heat the scalloped potatoes and ham in a microwave oven for a few minutes.

Add the chopped lettuce to individual serving bowls.  Top the lettuce with the chicken salad.

Cut the braided loaf into bite sized portions and put the pieces in a mixing bowl. 

Pour the garlic and olive oil over the bread pieces and toss.

Place the braided garlic bread pieces in a serving bowl.

Slice the bread loaf into 1” slices.

In a large pan, heat about 1/3 of the scalloped potatoes and ham, with a little water.

Add the sliced bread to the pan and let the bread absorb some of the liquid.  Turn the bread over and turn the heat off.

Assemble individual serving plates by adding portions of the shrimp and pasta, along the with the scalloped potatoes and ham on bread slices, and braided garlic bread.  Serve with the a side of chicken salad and a sample of the daily news.

Back in the Saddle Again

I’m still reeling after last week’s epic gumbo battle so please forgive me if I babble for a bit.  For those of you who want to cut to the chase and see today’s recipe, scroll down until you find “Chicken Enchiladas”, in large, friendly letters.  But, know that you are missing all of the fun and I pity you.

When I was young, and by young I mean elementary school age, I recall that many home cooked meals featured Hamburger Helper or Cream of Mushroom soup.  I don’t know if it was because so many working parents didn’t have time to make dinner or if it was just clever marketing agents influencing those parents, but the fact was that those products found an indelible niche in American cuisine.

Campbell’s puts out about a zillion different kinds of soup but I swear I can only remember three from my childhood.  Tomato soup, Cream of Mushroom soup and Chicken Noodle soup.  Okay, to be fair, there was Chicken & Stars, but that was really just chicken soup with star shaped pasta, and it was marketed to parents of finicky and/or sick children.   

Cream of Mushroom soup took center stage, back in the 1970’s.  It found its way in many recipes.  The ubiquitous green bean casserole is a testament to the long-lasting power of Cream of Mushroom soup.  If you don’t have green bean casserole every Thanksgiving then,…well, you’re just not a real American. 

Cream of Mushroom soup, “America’s béchamel” 

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not bashing Cream of Mushroom soup.  Cream of *Whatever* soup is instant béchamel in a can, and that’s a marvelous thing.

I remember having homemade chicken enchiladas for the first time.  I was 17 years old and having fun, hanging out with a friend.  His mother made us chicken enchiladas with Cream of Mushroom soup and canned green chiles.  Canned green chiles, back then, didn’t have clever graphics printed on the label, showing a thermometer indicating the “heat” of the chiles.  Canned green chiles were just that…canned green chiles.  They were hot and spicy, and that’s all you needed to know.  I loved those enchiladas. Thank you and bless you, Ginger!

But, when I discovered that I could make my own thickener from scratch, I felt a sudden rush, indeed, I felt a sense of empowerment!  I realized that I could thicken sauces or soups and have total control of flavors and textures!  A pad or two of butter and a spoonful or two of flour was the key that opened the door to an endless array of sauces.

For this recipe I used homemade green sauce and I made a homemade sauce from a simple roux and chicken stock.  If you want to use canned green chiles and cream of mushroom soup, that’s fine with me.  Just make sure you do it with love.

Chicken Enchiladas

Ingredients:

3 chicken breasts (mine started out frozen)

2 ½ cups chicken stock

4 or 5 garlic cloves

½ onion, chopped

10 to 12 oz green chile sauce

½ cup sour cream

8 oz Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded

2 Tbs butter

2 Tbs flour

10 corn tortillas

¼ cup cooking oil

Directions:

Boil the chicken in water until the chicken is fork tender.  Remove and allow to cool to room temperature.

While the chicken simmers, puree ½ cup chicken stock, green sauce and garlic cloves in a blender. 

Add the pureed sauce to a small skillet and simmer on low heat, to mellow the garlic, for 15 minutes.

Add the chopped onions to the skillet and simmer for another 15 minutes. Turn the heat off and allow it to cool to room temperature.

Add ¼ cup cooking oil to pan and set heat to low.  Soften each of the tortillas in the oil for a few seconds and remove to a plate.

Wipe the skillet clean.  Start a roux by adding the butter to the pan and set the heat to medium/low.  Add the flour and whisk until smooth.

Once the roux is smooth, add the remaining chicken stock.  Set heat to medium/high and whisk until the sauce has thickened. 

Add the green chile mixture and whisk for a minute.

Pour about one cup of the sauce into a bowl.  Leave the remaining sauce in the skillet and turn the heat off. 

Lay the cooked chicken on a clean work surface and smash with the broad side of a knife.  The chicken will break and fan out, making it easy to shred.  Shred the chicken by hand.

Add the chicken to the cheese and mix by hand.

Lay the tortillas on a work surface and add the chicken and cheese.  Roll the enchiladas and place in an oven-proof skillet, containing some of the sauce.  Once all of the enchiladas are in the skillet, pour the remaining sauce over them.

Bake in a 350° oven for 20 to 25 minutes.

Serve warm with rice or fried potatoes and guacamole salad.

Gumbo (Part II: The Intimidator)

At the heart of every good gumbo lies a good roux. 

I probably make 3 or 4 roux every week but they are of the small variety.  You know, two tablespoons of butter, two tablespoons of flour added to two cups of stock or broth.  A small roux takes just a few minutes to prepare and it usually come out just fine.

I have been telling myself that I make gumbo every year or two.  I think that’s because I really enjoy gumbo.  The truth of the matter is that I have probably only made it four times, (now five times).  As much as I love a good hot bowl of gumbo, I dread making the roux.  There are very few things in life that can vex me like a making a big batch of roux. 

Making roux for a gumbo is not easy; at least it’s not easy for me.  The volume of the roux needed is much larger than my normal roux.  Additionally, the roux needs to cook longer to achieve a deep, rich lustrous color and flavor.  Lastly, pushing the cooking process too far results in a burnt roux, which I am unfortunately prone to doing.  If a roux burns it must be tossed and another one must be made.  Nothing good ever happens by attempting to save a burnt roux. 

The good German lager is for me, not the roux!

Once you start a roux you can’t leave it alone until it has finished.  A roux must be stirred constantly to prevent the flour from burning.  Even the tiniest amount of burnt flour will affect the entire roux.

My step-by-step method for making a roux:

1) Add equal amounts of oil and flour to a Dutch oven (over low/medium heat).

2) Stir continuously, making sure to scrape the bottom and edges of the pot as you stir.

3) Keep stirring while the roux goes from blonde, to tan, to mahogany, to chocolate brown.

4) Taste a sample of the roux, after allowing it to sufficiently cool.

5) Detect a hint of burnt flavor, throw away the roux and wipe the Dutch oven clean.

6) Repeat.

Three more important pieces of advice that are often overlooked:

1) Use the bathroom before starting the roux.  You won’t be able to break away from the action until the roux is finished (maybe 45 minutes to an hour).

2) Pour yourself a drink and make sure that it’s within arm’s reach as you stir.

3) Keep a small aloe vera plant in the kitchen, close to the stove, in case of burns.

As for the aloe vera, it’s really good for minor burns.  Roux is jokingly referred to as Cajun Napalm.  Even a tiny drop of the hot roux can cause your skin to blister.  I got two blisters from this batch.  I would have had three blisters but, when I got hit for the third time, I quickly pinched off the tip of an aloe leaf and rubbed it on the burn. 

Look closely and you’ll see I removed a tip from a leaf, at the right.
My drink of choice for the 1st roux was Spaten Lager. A nice Cabernet Sauvignon got me through the 2nd roux. Note the flat ended spatula…this is essential!

As I mentioned, I burned the first roux and had to start another one.  I cooked the roux over low heat both times. 

For the first attempt I used 3 cups canola oil and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the roux for 67 minutes and it reached a near-perfect chocolate brown color, but the roux had a slight burnt flavor. 

For the second attempt I decided to use 2 cups canola oil, 1 cup lard and 3 cups flour.  I cooked the second roux for 50 minutes. I brought the roux to a dark tan and shut the heat down before it turned to mahogany.  I didn’t want to run the risk of the burning the roux a second time!

This recipe makes about 2 gallons of gumbo (25 to 30 servings).

Ingredients:

1 lb medium sized shrimp, shell on and deveined

1 1/2 lbs cooked chicken breast, cut into 1/2″ cubes

3 cups canola oil

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 lb Andouille, cut into 1/2″ thick slices

1 large onion, chopped

1 bell pepper, chopped

1 large jalapeño, seeded and sliced

2 cups celery, chopped

1 whole head of garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups parsley, chopped

1 Tbs dried thyme

1 Tbs bay leaves

32 oz chicken stock

32 oz vegetable stock

1/2 cup shrimp stock reduction

12 oz okra, chopped

1 lb. crawfish tail meat

1 lb. crabmeat

1/2 cup clam stock reduction

12 oz white clams (about 12 clams)

Lots and lots of hot, steamed white rice

Directions:

Remove the shells from the shrimp and place in a skillet or pot.  Add a teaspoon of seasoning salt. Cover with water and simmer at medium heat for about 15 minutes.  Strain the liquid and reserve.  Discard the shrimp shells.  Heat the liquid in the pan until it reduces by at least half.  Reserve the reduction.

Put the chicken in a pot and cover with water.  Boil at low heat until cooked (about 40 minutes).  Remove the chicken to a platter and cool to room temperature.

In a small bowl, add the thyme and bay leaves. Cover with water and steam in a microwave for about a minute. Leave the herbs in the water and set aside.

Prep the vegetables and set aside.

Heat a large Dutch oven over medium heat.  (I used a 12” deep Dutch oven).  Add 1 cup oil and 1 cup flour and stir to incorporate.  Reduce heat to low/medium.  Add remaining oil and stir.  Add the remaining flour and stir constantly. 

After about 15 minutes the roux will begin to change from pale yellow to blonde.  Turn the heat to low and keep stirring. 

The roux will continue to darken and will become light tan and then dark tan.  Once the roux has turned to tan pay extra attention to the aroma and color of the roux as you stir. 

The color of the roux will begin to take on reddish/brown hue soon.  This is where I usually turn off the heat but, if you are brave and careful, keep stirring until the roux becomes chocolate brown. 

Once you are finished with the roux, turn off the heat and continue stirring for several more minutes.  The roux will remain very hot for at least 30 minutes.  Set the roux aside for now.

I stopped just short of mahogany on my second roux…yes, I chickened out!

And now, the easy part!

In a very, very large Dutch oven, (I used a 14” deep Dutch oven), add the chopped onion.  Sauté until the onion begins to turn brown. 

Add the bell pepper, celery and jalapeño.  Stir for a minute and add the garlic.  Stir for a few minutes and then remove everything to a bowl.

Add the sliced Andouille to the pot.  Stir over medium/high heat to brown the Andouille.  Remove the Andouille and set aside.

Add the chicken stock and vegetable stock to the pot and cook over high heat for 2 minutes.  Return the onions and Andouille to the pot.  Add the water from the steamed thyme and bay leaves. Discard the bay leaves and add the thyme to the pot. Turn the heat down to medium. 

Add about half of the roux to the pot and stir, to mix.  

Add the okra and stir.

Add the rest of the roux and stir.  The roux will thicken quickly.  If it is too thick, as mine was, add some water.  I added 3 cups of water.  Continue stirring.

Add the crawfish meat.  Stir briefly and turn the heat to low/medium.

Add the parsley and stir.

In a large skillet,  add two cups of water.  Set the heat to high and cover.  When the water reaches a hard boil, add the white clams, turn off the heat and cover.  The clams will snap open quickly.  Steam the clams for about a minute and remove to a bowl.  If some of the clams have not opened, bring the water back to boil and add the unopened clams.  If they pop open, hooray!  If they don’t open, they are doomed and will need to join the burned roux, in the trash can.  (All of my clams opened – Yippee!)

Reduce the steaming liquid from the clams to about one third.  You should wind up with a milky white reduction.  Strain the liquid through a paper towel and sieve to remove any sandy grit. Add the reduction to the gumbo pot.

Pull the clams from the shells and add the clams to the gumbo.  Discard the shells.

Add the chicken to the gumbo and stir.

Add the crab and stir.

Add the shrimp and green onions to the gumbo and stir.  The shrimp will cook within a couple of minutes.

Give the gumbo a good final stir.

Serve in bowls, over warm white rice.

So, other than a few 2nd degree burns and a failed roux, everything went according to plan!

Chicken Curry

I enjoy making a delicious curry dish every now and then but I have to admit, curry vexes me.  I’m the sort of guy that likes to know the subtle intricacies of the ingredients that I use but I have to admit, my understanding of curry is shamefully shallow.  Fortunately, my lack of understanding doesn’t prevent me from cooking with curry.  I’d like to make my own curry blends someday but, for now I will keep relying on my tried and true prepared blends.

Many years ago I received a boxed set of six curry spices from a friend.  Each container held 2 ounces of various spices.  There was Chaat Masala, Tandoori Masala, Garam Masala, Tea Masala and two that were simply labeled Hot Curry and Mild Curry.  I have used a little of each of them over the years and I still have those containers in my cupboard, tucked away in a far corner.  They have held up remarkably well over the years.  Some spices lose their potency and aroma over time but these seem to have incredible staying power!  I only use a teaspoon or two when I make a curry. 

This is a variation of a turkey curry that I bravely made several Thanksgivings ago, while visiting relatives.

Ingredients:

1 tsp hot curry

1 tsp mild curry

1 tsp turmeric

2 Tbs olive oil

1 yellow onion, chopped

5 garlic cloves, minced

1 ½ Tbs fresh ginger, minced

1 1/2 lbs chicken breasts, cut into 1 ½ inch pieces

½ cup chicken broth

1 ripe tomato, chopped

A pinch of salt

1 tsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tsp water (thickening slurry)

1/3 cup coconut milk

2 Tbs chopped cilantro

1 green onion, chopped

Directions:

Mix the spices in a small bowl.  Set aside.

Heat olive oil in a wok over medium-high heat.

Add the garlic and ginger, sauté for about 30 seconds.

Add the onion and sauté until they almost turn golden brown, about 4 or 5 minutes. Add the curry spices.  Sauté another 30 seconds and then remove everything from the wok and keep handy.

Add the chicken to the wok.

Stir-fry the chicken until the chicken turns white and firm, about 5 minutes.

Once the chicken has cooked, add the cooked onion and garlic and stir. 

Add the chicken broth and tomato and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low.  Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add a pinch of salt.  Stir and taste.  Add more salt, if you like.  Stir in the cornstarch and water slurry, to thicken sauce slightly.  Simmer for a few more minutes.

Stir in the coconut milk and turn out to a serving bowl.   Serve warm with cilantro and green onions over basmati rice.

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. 

Mini Meat Loaf Dinner

I’m still adjusting to cooking for two or three people instead of four, or more.  It seems like it would be simple enough to divide a recipe in half but, when it comes right down to it, my brain still tells me to keep cooking on a larger scale.  Some dishes lend themselves well to leftovers while some others don’t.  Leftovers are great for lunches the next day but after a few days of cooking too much food, the refrigerator tends to become packed with lots of little storage containers.  I find myself going through the refrigerator every weekend and tossing uneaten leftovers. 

This meatloaf would be perfect for leftovers, if I had made the full recipe.  A meatloaf sandwich, with some potato chips and applesauce might make a nice lunch.

So, here is the modest meat loaf…one that can be shared by two or three people.

Ingredients:

1.25 lbs ground chuck (80/20)

1 egg

1 cup rolled oats

1 tsp Cajun seasoning

1 tsp onion powder

1 tsp paprika

½ tsp garlic powder

½ tsp salt

½ tsp dried oregano

3 Tbs ketchup

1 tsp Worcestershire sauce

For the potatoes and green beans:

5 small russet potatoes

2 cups cooking oil

½ lb fresh green beans

1 garlic clove, smashed

1 Tbs honey

1 Tbs butter

¼ cup water

Directions:

Wash and dry the potatoes.  Cut the potatoes into large, one inch pieces.  Add 2 cups of oil to a large skillet and set the heat to low.  Add the potatoes and let them fry for about 45 minutes.  Frying at a low temperature results in crispy potatoes with creamy interiors. 

Combine the Cajun seasoning,  onion powder, paprika, garlic powder, salt and oregano in a small bowl and mix.

In a large mixing bowl, add the ground beef.  Add the oats and egg.  Mix to combine.

Add the spices, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce.  Mix thoroughly. 

Put the meat mixture in a 9” x 5” non-stick loaf pan.  Cook uncovered in a 325° oven for 45 minutes.

While the meat loaf and potatoes cook, wash the green beans and snip off the ends.  Set aside until the potatoes are done.

Once the potatoes are cooked, drain in a strainer and reserve the oil for another day.  Keep the potatoes in a warm area until ready to serve.

Put the green beans in the skillet and return to the stove.  Set the temperature at medium low and toss the green beans for a few minutes. 

Add the garlic, honey and butter and stir.  Add the water and simmer, covered for 15 minutes. 

While the green beans steam, remove the meat loaf from the oven and place on a serving dish.  Keep warm.

When the green beans have softened and are cooked to your liking, arrange them on the plate with the meat loaf. 

The amount of Cajun seasoning in this recipe shouldn’t be over-powering.  If you want to add some kick, make a side dish of ketchup and hot sauce (2 parts ketchup to 1 part hot sauce).

Cambodian Rice Noodle Stir-Fry

Sometimes I conceive a meal by following my instincts, rather than following a recipe.  It makes me feel like I am creating something brand new.

On this particular weeknight, I allowed my taste buds to tell me what I wanted to make and my mind followed.  I knew I wanted to include shrimp, because I’ve been craving shrimp.  I knew I wanted to use Cambodian rice noodles, because I have had some in my pantry for a few months.  From that launching point, my mind quickly assembled the rest of the items that would bring the dish together.  Pork, vegetables, sesame oil, peanuts, fish sauce, garlic, green onions and so on. 

I resisted the urge to look up recipes on the internet.  I’m not saying that looking up recipes on the internet is cheating but I sometimes find that internet searches just affirm what I already know.  Once a person has made several stir-fry dishes, the process becomes instinctive and intuitive.  Deciding what to include in a stir-fry is only limited by the imagination of the cook.  My imagination and creativity runs deep and I have learned not to think about “success” or “failure”, when cooking.  Maybe that’s because I have become more comfortable in the kitchen over the years, or maybe it’s because I pretend to be fearless when I am creating something.  It could be a little of both. 

I approach stir-frying like I approach painting, in an abstract style. 

When I paint an abstract painting I usually follow this thought process:

What is my state of mind?  How do I want to convey my thoughts and emotions?

That leads to, what colors would be best to get my point across?  What sort of shapes do I see?  What will be the focus of the painting, or will there be a main focus?  Etcetera.  The thinking process goes on as long as I need it to and then my hands start working quickly.

Mix the paint on the pallet.  Lay out my brushes.  Act quickly.  Act without thinking.  Let the creative part of my mind dictate my actions but allow the reasonable part of my mind to make critical decisions. 

Is the finished work a masterpiece?  That’s not for me to decide.  The real question I ask is, “does this satisfy me?”

The same goes with cooking, especially stir-fry cooking. 

How am I feeling today?  What kind of meal would complete this day in a meaningful way?

I decide what flavors I want to use.  I decide what meats, vegetables and starches will achieve what I want to convey my thoughts.  I decide how I want the finished dish to look, when it is presented.   

Is the finished work a masterpiece?  That’s not for me to decide.  The real question I ask is, “does this satisfy me?”

Anyone who eats a meal or sees a painting leaves with their own memories, thoughts and feelings.  The intention of the cook or the painter is irrelevant.  I don’t know why that makes me so happy, but it does!

Ingredients:

1 garlic clove, smashed

7 roots of green onion

1 Tbs sesame oil

1 lb lean pork, shaved thin

12 medium sized shrimp, peeled and de-veined

1 tsp sesame oil

5 oz thin Cambodian rice noodles

For the marinade:

¼ cup dark soy sauce

¼ soy sauce

¼ cup Vietnamese chili garlic paste (Sambal Olek works nicely, too)

¼ cup Vietnamese fish sauce (smells funky, tastes great)

For the stir-fry:

2 carrots

7 green onions (just the greens)

¼ head of cabbage, sliced thin

2 Tbs ginger, sliced very thin

2 jalapeños, sliced

1 lime, quartered

For the peanut sauce:

¼ cup soy sauce

1 ½ Tbs Hoisin sauce

1 Tbs peanut butter

1 Tbs brown sugar

½ cup roasted peanuts, crushed

Directions:

Prepare the vegetables:

Slice the garlic, ginger, cabbage, carrots, and jalapeños and green onions.  Arrange separately on a large plate until needed.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to the wok and add the roots of the green onion roots and garlic.  Simmer at low heat.  Turn off heat after 1 minute.   Continue to allow the onion and garlic to flavor the oil.

Prepare the marinade:

Combine dark soy sauce, soy sauce, chili garlic paste and fish sauce in a bowl.

Prepare the pork and shrimp.

Remove the fatty edges of the pork and reserve. 

Use the pork fat to flavor the oil

Slice the pork thinly and store in a bowl. 

Peel and de-vein the shrimp.  Store in the bowl that contains the pork.

Add the marinade to the pork and shrimp.  Store in the refrigerator until needed.

Add pork fat to the wok.  Turn up heat and cook while stirring.  Remove the onions, garlic and pork fat after they char (just a few minutes).  Discard the garlic, onions and pork.  Leave the flavored oil in the wok.

Prepare the peanut sauce:

Add one tablespoon of peanut butter…not in photo.

Crush the peanuts with the broad side of a knife.

Combine soy sauce, Hoisin sauce, peanut butter, brown sugar and crushed roasted peanuts in a bowl.  Transfer to a hot skillet and stir to combine for a minute. Set aside cooked sauce.

Quarter the lime and reserve until serving time.

Prepare the noodles:

Prepare the rice noodles, according to the instructions on the package.  In this case, I soaked the rice noodles in cold water for about 5 minutes until they became soft, but not mushy.  Strain out the water and set the noodles aside, until needed.

Time to stir-fry!

All of the prep work is essential.  Make sure to have everything prepped before you crank up the wok.  Seriously…there’s nothing worse than going full force into stir frying and realizing that you have forgotten to cut some vegetable or meat or realizing that you haven’t prepared a sauce.  Take a moment to review all of the items that you are going to include in the stir-fry and make sure that they are ready to go!  Take the marinated meat out of refrigerator and keep it close, on hand.  Keep some oil near the wok.  Make sure to have your serving plate ready to receive the finished food. 

Now, go!

Add 1 tablespoon of sesame oil to the wok.  Cook the shrimp and pork at high heat.  Stir constantly until the shrimp and pork are cooked.  This should only take a minute, or so.  Remove to a bowl and store in a warm place.

Add a tablespoon of oil to the hot wok and add the sliced ginger and a little bit of green onion.  Stir for a moment and then add the carrots and jalapeños.  Stir for a minute, to allow the carrots to soften. 

Add the cabbage and stir constantly.  Once the cabbage has wilted and softened a little, remove all of the vegetables to a large bowl.  Don’t remove the liquid from the wok. 

Add the noodles and stir constantly.  Once the noodles have absorbed some of the liquid in the wok, add the peanut sauce.  Stir to incorporate. 

Return the vegetables and shrimp and pork to the wok.  Stir with the noodles and turn out to a large serving platter.  Top with green diced green onion and lime slices.

Spritz with fresh lime and serve.

Stuffed Chicken Breasts

The biggest challenge here is making the chicken breast thin enough to roll.  It needs to be thin in order to cook evenly and it needs to be thin enough to roll up like a burrito. 

You could flatten the chicken breasts by pounding them down with a mallet but I prefer to slice the breasts horizontally, nearly all of the way, and then I lay the chicken breast open.  If the chicken breast is really thick you can slice it from the top side and then slice it again, in the opposite direction from the bottom side, to make a tri-fold.

Before we get going…

A caution about using toothpicks to secure food.  I use the same number of toothpicks on each item that I secure.  If I need two picks on one chicken breast, I use two on all of the other breasts, even if I might only need one toothpick for some.  That way, when serving time arrives, I know that I must remove two toothpicks from each breast.  It eliminates the guessing game that comes when I think, “did I use one or two toothpicks on this one?”  Make sure to remove toothpicks before serving! 

As with many recipes, you can stuff the chicken with anything you like.  This time around, I had some ricotta cheese that needed to be used and some prosciutto that was just itching to be used for something.  This recipe serves three people.

Ingredients:

3 chicken breasts

4 oz prosciutto

1/3 cup parmesan cheese

7 oz ricotta cheese (about half of a 15 oz container)

1 ½ cups Panko bread crumbs

½ cup cooking oil

For the sauce:

1 Tbs butter

1 Tbs flour

½ onion

¼ cup chicken stock

24 oz tomato sauce (I used an 8 oz can and 16 oz tomato sauce)

¼ cup half-and-half

1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

4 oz spinach

Directions:

On a clean cutting board, flatten the chicken breasts to ¼” thick, or carefully slice them.

Layer the chicken breasts with several slices of prosciutto ham. 

Scatter grated parmesan cheese over the chicken breasts.

Apply a schmear of ricotta cheese to the chicken.

Spread some panko bread crumbs onto a large platter.  Lay a chicken breast onto the bread crumbs and press down lightly. 

Roll the chicken breast and secure with toothpicks. 

Heat a large skillet to medium heat and add ½ cup cooking oil. When the oil is hot, gently lay the chicken breasts into the pan, being careful to not crowd the pan.

When the bottom side browns, turn it over and cook the other side.  When both sides are golden brown, remove to a clean plate, lined with a paper towel.

Discard the oil from the pan.  I like to reuse oil so I usually dump the oil in a stainless steel bowl and filter it later and store it in a can.

Wipe remaining oil from pan but leave a slight, residual film of oil.  Turn heat to medium high and add onions.  Sautee for a minute until onions soften.  Remove onions and set aside.

Deglaze the skillet with chicken stock.

Butter and Flour, Tomato Sauce, Half and Half and Chicken Stock

Add butter and flour and whisk to make a roux. 

Add cream and tomato sauce.  Whisk and sauté until the sauce thickens.  Return the onions to the skillet.  Lower the heat.

Add mozzarella.

Add fresh spinach and sauté for another minute, or so, until the spinach wilts.

Pour the sauce onto an oven proof serving platter.  Arrange the chicken on top of the sauce and add a few slices of mozzarella. Bake in the oven for a few minutes to melt the cheese.

Garnish with fresh spinach and serve.