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. 

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. 

Crazy Bread

First things first, this isn’t a copy-cat version of the Little Caesar’s classic. 

But, since I brought up Little Caesar’s Crazy Bread I feel the urge to share my thoughts on that ingenious invention.  Long, long ago, in a past career, I was once versed in food cost and clever marketing.  I remember when Little Caesar’s came out with Crazy Bread.  My first thought was, “Well… some marketing guru just earned a big bonus!”

The idea behind Little Caesar’s Crazy Bread is so simple that it needs no explanation, but really, it does.  Successful restaurants make money when they focus on selling mass produced low food cost items.  Conversely, they run the risk of going belly-up if they dabble too much in high food cost items…especially high food cost items that have a short storage life. 

Dough is cheap.  Little Caesar’s knows that.  That’s why they can sell a large pizza for $5. Throw on a little sauce, some cheap cheese and one topping and sell the pizza for five bucks.  They don’t make a ton of money off of the pizza but they sell a lot of them.  Overall food cost for the pizza is probably between 1 and 2 dollars.

About 20 years after Little Caesar’s came into being, they figured out how to increase their profit margin with a gimmick.  Crazy Bread is nothing more than bread dough with a dusting of dried parmesan cheese.  They’re very cheap to make.  They sell 8 bread sticks for just few dollars.  The ingenious part of their scheme is the sauce.  What’s a bread stick without marinara sauce?  Oh, sure you can eat a bread stick without sauce but wouldn’t it be much nicer to dip the soft bread stick in warm marinara sauce?  Mmmmm.   Is a 4 ounce cup of marina sauce worth 60 cents?  You bet!  And that’s where they make the money.  Here we are, nearly 40 years after Crazy Bread was introduced and it’s still going strong.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against Little Caesar’s or their Crazy Bread and I’m all for capitalism.  I just find this sort of stuff fascinating! 

OK, enough of that…let’s dig into some of my crazy bread.

As I have mentioned previously, I have been working long hours and I don’t have much time to make elaborate meals, or much time to document them for my blog!  I came home rather late one night, recently and knew I had to come up with something quick to prepare.  My first thought was to check the refrigerator for things that might spoil, if not used soon.  Raw meat always tops the list of things to check.  I saw a pound of sweet Italian sausage and knew that it had been in the refrigerator for about three days.  A pasta dish came to mind but I really didn’t want to make a big production.  And then my mind went to bread.  I didn’t stop to think.  I started to make a quick, simple bread dough.  While the dough rose I browned the sausage in a pan and shredded some extra sharp cheddar cheese.

Total time to prepare from start to finish:  1.25 hours.   It was worth the wait!

Ingredients:

3 cups flour

1 packet instant, fast rising  yeast

1 1/4 cup warm water

1 Tbs garlic powder

1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

2 tsp sugar

1 Tbs honey

1 lb sweet Italian bulk sausage

1 cup grated extra sharp cheddar cheese

Directions:

Mix 2 cups flour, yeast and garlic powder with a whisk.  Set aside.

Add the honey and sugar to a large mixing bowl.

Heat the water in a microwave or stove top to about 100°.  Add the water to the mixing bowl and whisk to blend with the sugar and honey.

Slowly add flour mixture and stir with a spatula. 

Add the crushed red pepper and garlic powder.  Mix to combine thoroughly.   Slowly add the rest of the flour and mix by spatula and then by hand.

Turn the dough out to a lightly floured surface.  Knead for a few minutes until the dough becomes a firm and forms a ball.

Return the dough to the mixing bowl, cover with foil and keep in a warm place.  Let the dough rise for at least 45 minutes.

While the dough rises, brown the sausage and shred the cheese.

Once dough has doubled in size, add the cooked sausage and grated cheese.

Mix the dough thoroughly and let it rise in a warm place for 5 or 10 minutes.

On a lightly greased baking sheet, form the dough into the shape of your preference.  Since this is crazy bread I decided a question mark shape would be appropriate.

Bake at 400° for about 30 minutes.  Remove and allow the bread to cool for a few minutes before serving.

Serve with a fresh salad.

This is the first time I have made bread this way and I was pleasantly surprised.  I imagine using breakfast sausage next time and serving with scrambled eggs and fresh fruit. 

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.

Sheet Pan Roast

This is a great time-saving meal for a weeknight dinner…very convenient for working parents who want to make something nutritious, tasty and quickly.  The whole process takes about an hour, from start to finish.  Clean up is easy, especially if you line the sheet pan with parchment paper or foil.  I used frozen Italian sausage for this and it cooked completely and browned nicely.  The ham was cured and ready to eat, so I added it near the end of the cooking process, just to make it warm.

Ingredients:

3 large russet potatoes

2 very large carrots

8 to 10 oz broccoli

½ large onion

8 oz mushrooms

2 tsp salt

2 tsp fresh ground black pepper

3 Tbs olive oil

2 garlic cloves, smashed

2 Tbs Italian seasoning

2 mild Italian sausage links (about ½ lb)

½ lb cured ham, sliced ¼” thick.

1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Directions:

Set oven to 350°.

Peel and rough chop vegetables.  Cut vegetables into 1” to 1 ½” pieces.

Add oil, garlic, salt, pepper and Italian seasoning to a large mixing bowl.

Toss vegetables in the oil mixture and turn everything out to a lined sheet pan.

Add the sausage on top of the vegetables.

Bake at 350° for 20 minutes.  Stir vegetables and turn the sausage over to brown evenly.  Bake for another 15 minutes.  Add the ham and stir.  Top with Parmesan cheese Bake for another 5 minutes.  Serve from the baking sheet, or a serving platter.