Spanakopita Pie

February 14, 2014

Filed Under : main courses - veg, salad, & side dishes

spanakopita pie | © karacooks.com

The February Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by Audax of Audax Artifex. The challenge brought us to Greece with a delicious, flaky spanakopita – a spinach pie in a phyllo pastry shell.

I haven’t participated in a a Daring Kitchen challenge in … um … longer than I can remember. When I went back to the website, I was afraid that I might have been removed from the list, since the rules used to say that if you missed more than 2 months in a row, you were out. It seems the rules have been relaxed (at least for now) so, I’m in the clear! *whew*

I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of challenge cooking, though. I find that I’m much better about making new things when I have outside encouragement, so be looking for more of these monthly challenge posts from me!

Ok, onward with the challenge dish.

I love spanakopita, so I already knew I was going to like this pie. I’ve never made it from scratch but the recipe wasn’t at all difficult. The biggest surprise for me was to find out that none of the filling is cooked before it’s all put in the phyllo crust and baked. I thought for sure that the onion and spinach filling was sauteed first. The next biggest surprise was that the recipe included breadcrumbs and/or couscous for thickening. (For the record I used couscous.)

spanakopita pie | © karacooks.com

I made a few substitutions, but only because of my own lack of attention to the detail (and because, well, the day I baked this we were iced in and I couldn’t run to the grocery store and get my missing ingredients!). I also learned a few things!

  • I totally misread the recipe and got yellow onion and not spring onion, so instead I used 2 leeks.
  • I forgot to get fresh dill and I wasn’t sure that using the dried stuff would work out, so I left it out. I did have whole nutmeg, though!
  • I only had a pound of spinach, and by the time I realized I needed 2 lbs, I’d already prepped and chopped all the rest of the ingredients. So for a “spinach pie” it was probably lighter on spinach than it should have been!
  • Next time I make this (and I will make it again) I will add more layers of phyllo to the bottom of the pie.
  • I tried to make it less messy by using a strainer and a spatula, but you really need to get in there with your hands and squeeze and mush things together for it to work, and to get the most liquid extracted (pic below).
  • I used couscous for my liquid absorbing agent and it took about 3/4 cup for the volume of liquid I had. I added another 1/8th of a cup (roughly) to the mix just to absorb any juices in the baking. It worked well and there was no crunchy couscous in my final product.
  • I need a lot more practice working with phyllo. Mine tore and folded and finally I just sort of gave up and plastered it all together with butter!
  • I forgot to score the top before cooking, but mine sliced up pretty cleanly fresh out of the oven. The filling held together a little better if I let it sit for a few mins before serving, however.

spanakopita pie | © karacooks.com

We loved this as a warm and filling while-we’re-iced-in meal; I ate it as my main course and H had a serving as a side with some smoked sausage. And I keep going back for nibbles and bits. I wonder how it would work for breakfast with a poached egg? Hmmmm!

Here’s the recipe as posted.

spanakopita pie | © karacooks.com

Spanakopita Pie

  • 2 lbs spinach (either frozen chopped or fresh, chopped and stemmed)
  • 2 cups feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 oz chopped fresh dill
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 2-3 shallots, chopped
  • 1 bunch spring onions, chopped
  • 1 large leek, well washed, white & light green part chopped
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup of couscous (or bread crumbs)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 stick of butter, melted
  • 1 packet phyllo sheets

Preheat the oven to 375°F

In a large bowl, mix together the first 8 ingredients (through the garlic) and mix well. I found that actually getting in there with my hands and mixing was the best way, especially if you’re using fresh spinach. You really need to smush up the ingredients and get them to meld. It was the suggestion in the original recipe, and it was spot on.

Let the mix sit for 10 mins or so and then squeeze out as much of the liquid as you can. Add the couscous or breadcrumbs to the liquid and let it sit for another 10 mins to absorb. (I used couscous and it took about 3/4 of a cup to get a paste like texture. I then added about another 1/8 of a cup of dry couscous directly to the filling mix to absorb any additional cooking liquid.)

Return the thickened liquid to the spinach filling, and add your eggs.

Butter the bottom and sides of your baking dish Begin layering phyllo sheets in your baking dish, brushing on melted butter between every 2nd sheet. I went with the 8 sheets suggested in the recipe, but I really recommend maybe 12 sheets. I found that after cooking, I really wanted a slightly thicker crust to the bottom and sides.

Spoon in the filling and smooth it out, then fold over the phyllo. Add 6-8 more sheets to the top, again brushing on the melted butter between every 2nd sheet. Tuck in the edges as you go.Score the phyllo before baking to make it easier to cut after.

Bake for 45 mins to an hour.

If you forget to score the phyllo before baking, found that it sliced pretty well without crumbling while it was still hot. The filling held together better after it had been allowed to cool for about 20 mins, though. So I’d recommend slicing it once right out of the oven so the phyllo doesn’t crumble, and then waiting 15-20 mins to cut out your pieces to serve.

Meal Planning Monday – 2014 Week 7

February 10, 2014

Filed Under : miscellaneous food

seafood stew | © karacooks.com

I stuck to last weeks meal plan 100%. We had plenty of leftovers for the days designated, plus to carry us over during the weekend. It’s the first week that we’ve made it 100% and I’m pretty happy about that.

I’m still working on cooking smaller portions. Some things can be frozen if there are too many leftovers, but I had to toss a more than I wanted to of the seafood stew (pictured above) because cooked fish and shrimp just don’t freeze well at all. I need to learn to make less of those things.

This coming week will be interesting. The news is predicting another ice/snow storm that will likely shut down the city for at least a day or two, so I need to plan accordingly.

I’m also planning on getting back into the Daring Cooks challenges, something I haven’t done in a long time. So Wednesday’s meal will be playing catch-up with the February challenge dish – Spanakopita!

I picked up almond milk and yogurt on Saturday, so as always, yogurt and fruit for breakfast, my regular smoothie for lunch, and then healthy dinners as planned. 

Weekday Dinners

  • Monday – cabbage, sausage, and potatoes
  • Tuesday – salmon croquettes, salad
  • Wednesday – spanakopita pie (daring cooks challenge)
  • Thursday – chicken and black bean enchilada casserole
  • Friday – Leftovers / TBD / Possible date night

Saturday & Sunday Dinners / Cooking 

I plan to make a big pot of beans on Saturday (using up the last of the ham stock) and then to clean out the upright freezer on Sunday so there might be an eclectic selection for dinner that night to get rid of bits and pieces.

Things 2014 – Week 6

February 9, 2014

Filed Under : life

yellow rumped warbler | © karacooks.com

Things: Life

This being the South, our schizophrenic weather provided for days in the high 50s and lows in the 30s and 40s this past week. We had some truly gorgeous days with bright blue skies and big puffy clouds, and a few days of rain, that were chilly, but not terrible. It’s like last week never happened.

The little guy (actually gal – since this is a female) above is a yellow rumped warbler. I just found out today that they hang out in GA in the winter mostly. The snow day was the first time I’d ever seen one in my yard. I love the bright spots of yellow!

Z and I wound up going out to dinner on Friday for my birthday. We choose Stoney River, where we ate delicious food, drank a little too much wine (me), and generally had a lovely evening together. The scotch tasting is being rescheduled for the end of Feb and I’m looking forward to that, too!

This week I worked a lot of overtime and Z came down with whatever plague is going around, so there’s not much else to talk about from the week.

I can foresee that the next two weeks are going to be filled with the Olympics. I know there are political issues with both the Games and the host country. I know that there are many things that make the Olympics problematical for a lot of people and I respect that. For me? I admire and respect the athletes who work so hard their entire lives to get there. I choose to celebrate them and their achievements and enjoy the pageantry of the Games and the events. Plus, I cry. I can’t help it.

Things: Books & Movies & TV

  • I finished Never Tell, the most recent book in the Ellie Hatcher series by Alafair Burke. I enjoy these books as good light reads; not fluffy, but not terribly deep or thought provoking either. To be honest, I thought her Samantha Kincaid books were better and more interesting.
  • Still working on Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (P.S.).
  • Re-reading Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens just as it was written, in serial form. I’m allowing myself a chapter a night as my bedtime reading and really enjoying it.
  • I also finished Follow the River by James Alexander Thom, which is based on the true story of Mary Draper Ingles who was kidnapped by the Shawnee during a raid, escaped, and walked more than 800 miles home, down the Ohio and the New Rivers.
  • Currently, I’m reading Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry. It’s about a modern day Indian woman who “guides” people into new lives when they need to not be found. Sort of an unofficial Witness Protection Program, just not entirely legal.
  • I’m so excited that the Walking Dead starts again this Sunday, plus we get the Game of Thrones pre-season recap, the next True Detective, and the second-to-last Downton Abbey. I think I’m going to have to spread some of that out over the course of the week.

Things: Links

  •  Loving the concept behind Jana’s The Townhouse Pioneer. I do live in a townhouse with a fairly strict HOA and I still manage to grow a few things in pots, cook, can, preserve, refinish furniture, and take on some fairly major projects. It’s all about being prepared. 
  • This video of a panda having a blast in the snow at the Toronto Zoo made me giggle.
  • I’ve been a fan of Chuck Close‘s portraits for a while. He recently completed a project where he photographed Hollywood celebs, but required that they do their own hair and makeup and show up with only one other person (no entourage). The outtakes are even better than the portraits.
  • Karen Walrond’s (Chookooloonks.com) post on why 40 rocks is really spot on. 40 has so far been an awesome decade for me. No one should be afraid of it or dread it.
  • You won’t realize while watching it that this is a scotch ad. It’s a little sappy, but I loved it. And yes, I teared up at the end. (video)
  • Rhonda at Southern Hospitality Blog posted a take on the Great Atlanta Snow-Jam of 2014 and included photos of some of the worst of the traffic jams and snarl ups.

Cheddar Jalapeno Skillet Cornbread

February 5, 2014

Filed Under : breads, scones, & muffins

cheddar & jalapeno cornbread | © karacooks.com

One of my favorite winter-time comfort meals is ham and bean soup. But you can’t serve ham and bean soup (at least in the South) without cornbread. But, believe it or not, cornbread can be a loaded topic here in the South. There are a ton of variations and just as many arguments over what makes it genuine, authentic southern cornbread; sugar or not, white cornmeal or yellow, add flour or not, even whether or not you cook it in a baking dish or a cast iron skillet. We won’t even get into the topic of contaminating your cornbread with things like cheese, whole corn kernels, jalapenos, green chile, and other “foreign” ingredients!

For the record I am a no-sugar, no-flour, yellow cornmeal, cast iron girl all the way. But I’ll willingly contaminate my cornbread with anything spicy and cheesy without thinking twice, as you can see from this recipe.

cheddar & jalapeno cornbread | © karacooks.com

My recipe is based on my Meemaw’s original recipe, including the use of a preheated cast iron skillet. She never added jalapeno to hers, but I suspect she’d approve of my use of it.

Also I am trying to get away from using shortening, so I substituted coconut oil in this recipe and it turned out perfectly with no odor or flavor of coconut, so if you are adverse to shortening, try the coconut oil!

This recipe makes the use of a 6″ cast iron skillet, which will give you 8 nice sized wedges of cornbread. You can double the recipe to fill a 10″ or 12″ skillet, but you’ll need to increase the cooking time by another 15-20 mins.

You can also make this in an 8×8 square baking pan, although the pieces will be a little flatter, or as corn muffins (makes about 10 regular sized muffins).

cheddar & jalapeno cornbread | © karacooks.com

Cheddar Jalapeno Cornbread

  • 1 cup coarse ground cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup corn flour
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt (or more to taste)
  • 1.5 cup milk (or half and half buttermilk & milk)
  • 1/4 cup shortening or coconut oil, melted
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 6oz can diced jalapenos (or diced green chile)
  • 3-4 oz shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 tbsp butter

While you’re mixing your ingredients, put your cast iron skillet on the stovetop with the heat on underneath it. Let it get good and hot. Preheat your oven to 425.

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. You really don’t have to sift or separate anything, although I do find mixing the eggs up a little and breaking up the yolks helps.

When all the ingredients are just moist and mixed, add the butter to your cast iron skillet and let it melt.

Pour your batter over the sizzling melted butter and immediately move the skillet to the preheated oven.

Cook for 20-25 mins, or until it passes the “toothpick” test.

This recipe makes 8 wedges of cornbread.

Cals: 237 | Protein: 7g | Fat: 14g | Carbs: 19g | Sugar: 2g | Fiber 3.5g

 

Meal Planning Monday – 2014 Week 6

February 3, 2014

Filed Under : miscellaneous food

chocolate layer cake | © karacooks.com

Well much of my last week’s plan got shifted around due to our Snow & Ice Apocalypse last week. The scotch tasting is being rescheduled, H took me out to dinner on Thurs, Z and I went out Friday, and the rest of the week is kind of a blur of ice, snow, and whatever was in the fridge.

This week is all about getting a grip on healthy eating again. I spent about $140 on groceries Sunday afternoon, but there are a few reasons I went over the weekly budget:

  • Publix had some very very good BOGO deals on things that I use a lot of regularly, so I stocked up on ketchup, Ro-Tel tomatoes, tomato juice, Kraft cheese, smoked sausages, Mt Olive Pickles, Sabra hummus, and club soda. (I may or may not have bought 20 cans of Ro-Tel.)
  • I splurged on a few items for Super Bowl Sunday: Triscuits, extra cheese, a 6 pack of beer, and some chips for dipping.
  • My goal of $100 a week on groceries is meant to be an average over time. I plan to continue to buy some things in bulk at Costco and if I were to limit myself weekly, that would be hard to do. A lot of what I bought this trip will carry over for the rest of the month (or further), so it’ll all balance out in the long run.

So on to the plan. I plan to stick strictly to yogurt and fruit for breakfast, my regular smoothie for lunch, and then healthy dinners as planned. 

Weekday Dinners

  • Monday – Leftover beef veggie soup
  • Tuesday – Seafood stew over polenta (tilapia, shrimp)
  • Wednesday – Sandwiches and veggies (egg salad/tuna)
  • Thursday – Meatloaf, broccoli, mashed parsnips and potatoes
  • Friday – Leftovers / TBD

Saturday & Sunday Dinners / Cooking 

It’s about time to make another batch of tomato sauce and maybe a batch or two of chili base for the freezer.

Things 2014 – Week 5

February 2, 2014

Filed Under : life

winter 2014 | © karacooks.com

Things: Life

Everyone pretty much knows by now what happened this week in Atlanta. It pretty much overwhelmed everything else. I’m lucky – I work from home full time and so didn’t have to deal with decisions of whether or not to risk the roads.

H, unfortunately, was one of the unlucky ones who got stuck in the mess. He left his office at 2, got stuck in a traffic jam for nearly 3 hours, decided to follow the advice of the folks on the radio who said to pull off the road and wait out the “worst of it”. He got back on the road a little bit before 7, worried that as the sun went down the roads would start to freeze again … and wound up stuck. He finally got home at 5:25 in the morning.

Needless to say my birthday week plans were cancelled. I started out feeling a bit whiney and pouty about it on Tuesday morning, but as the news reports came rolling in, I realized that my plans were nothing compared to the utter disaster that was unfolding in my town.

Sadly I have lost friends over this – something I still can’t believe. I had a few so-called friends from “up north” (one in Michigan in particular) who were especially rude, hateful, and callous about the situation. I finally lost it with being told repeatedly how stupid we all were for allowing ourselves to be shut down by “a couple of inches of snow”. I wound up blocking some people on FB for their complete ignorance – especially after one woman told me that she and her family had dealt with 2 months of much worse weather and she had “… no sympathy for you at all. The cold up here has frozen my heart.”

It shows me how pervasive the “Southerners are stupid” attitude is outside of the South. Not knowing how to drive on ice (which we get one or two days every few years) doesn’t make us stupid any more than not knowing how to swim makes someone stupid. If someone who couldn’t swim fell into the water and panicked, you wouldn’t stand there and roll your eyes at them and tell them they should just “deal with it”. But somehow Southerners who have no experience with ice are supposed to just magically know how to deal with it and drive on it, and if we don’t we’re a bunch of idiots.

Anyway, the last of the cars are finally being towed and restored to their owners, the ice is mostly melted except in the most shady spots, and things seem to be moving along again.

Things: Books & Movies & TV

  • I just finished Joe Hill’s Horns: A Novel and loved it. I loved it more than NOS4A2, which was good but felt just a little too long to me. Horns was a perfect 1st person narrative; the ending wasn’t unpredictable but still gave you pause to think.
  • I’m working my way through Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook (P.S.). This is not a book to be read straight through as a single narrative; it’s a series of vignettes and individual remembrances. When you first start the book it’s easy to remember why so many people think Bourdain is a complete asshole – because, well, he is. But he’s also very self-aware and insightful and just plain damn funny.
  • I just started watching True Detective on HBO. This is their new mini-series starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two Louisiana State cops investigating a series of possibly occult-driven murders. It takes place in mostly rural Lousiana; the meat of the events occur in 1995, but are told in retrospective interview method from 2012 interviews with the now retired Harrelson and McConaughey.  It’s really really well done. I caught up on the first three episodes on In-Demand and have added it to my DVR.
  • I absolutely want to see The Grand Budapest Hotel when it comes out. Wes Anderson can be hit or miss for me, but the trailer for this looks fantastic and absolutely hysterical!

Things: Links

Snowpocalypse Atlanta 2014

January 29, 2014

Filed Under : life

Snow 2014 | © karacooks.com

It’s been a weird day and it’s not over yet. It started with just a little snow and some disappointment about a change of birthday plans for the week.

Then things got weird. All of the schools and all of the businesses that weren’t smart enough to close for the day when snow was forecast? They let all their students and all their employees home at once – about 1:30 this afternoon. At that point it had been snowing for nearly 2 hours in some parts of the city. And not just any snow, but a wet, sticky snow that stuck and quickly began to form a layer of ice.

Snow 2014 | © karacooks.com

Now a lot of people from colder climes like to make fun of those of us in the South who freak out when it snows. They laugh that we close streets, shut down schools, and send people home over 1-2 inches of snow. But what many people don’t realize is that when it snows in the South, it’s not just snow. It almost immediately turns to slush and then freezes into sheets of solid ice. And because it’s a rare occurrence, we don’t have the infrastructure to salt and sand all the roads. So if you’re away from home when it starts snowing, you stand a really good chance of being stuck on slick, icy roads in a car without proper tires and surrounded by people who have never had to learn to drive on ice (either).

Snow 2014 | © karacooks.com

As of right now (a little after midnight), H has been trying to get home from work (15 miles from here) since a little after 5 p.m. He pulled off the road for a while when people started sliding into each other, and get back on around 7 when a couple of accidents had been pushed off the road. Now, 5 hours into his drive, he’s a little over halfway home, but still has to cross the river – and I strongly suspect the bridge is frozen, if not completely closed down.

There are no hotels available – I’ve looked. Home Depot is keeping it’s doors open and offering shelter to people who are stranded. So are several churches along the way. H has elected not to stop at any of those places – instead putting his Colorado-learned winter driving skills into practice and trying to avoid the abandoned cars, fender benders, and worst of the hills and overpasses.

Snow 2014 | © karacooks.com

My disappointment over my altered birthday plans has been eclipsed by fear and worry – not just for H but for the hundreds of people who are still stranded on icy highways here in Atlanta. I have several friends who have run out of gas while sitting on the road. I know one person who is sheltering in a church 6 miles from her home after being in the car for 8 hours. I know one person who is sleeping in his office (without badly needed meds) because all the overpasses have been shut down and he has no way to cross the highway to get home tonight.

It’s not supposed to rise above freezing tomorrow, but there is supposed to be sunlight. I only hope that enough of the slick, icy streets will thaw that people can get home and be safe.

A couple of inches of snow is nothing when you’re used to it and when you have the infrastructure and experience to deal with it. It’s pretty damn scary when you don’t.

 

 

Meal Planning Monday – 2014 Week 5

January 27, 2014

Filed Under : miscellaneous food

The Balvanie - my new favorite scotch | © karacooks.com

Happy Birthday to me!!

This is my birthday week, so more going out and not as much cooking happening. No, I’m really not one of those people who demands an entire week of celebration, I just am lucky enough to have lots of different groups of people to celebrate with: Z and I are going to a scotch tasting on Wednesday night; H plans to take me out to dinner on Tuesday (my actual birthday); I’m planning on meeting co-workers for drinks and dinner on Thursday. I suspect things might come up on Friday and over the weekend as well.

In consideration of all of that, I’m keeping Monday’s dinner lighter with lots of veggies and protein.

As always breakfast and lunch are smoothies/yogurt/fruit/veg.

Weekday Dinners

  • Monday – Shrimp & veggie stir fry
  • Tuesday – Dinner out with H
  • Wednesday – Scotch tasting and dinner with Z
  • Thursday – Drinks and dinner with co-workers
  • Friday – TBD

Saturday & Sunday Dinners / Cooking 

After a week full of restaurant food and probably quite a bit of drink, I am hoping to keep the weekend light and full of salads and veggies. I might even sneak in a daytime fast on Sunday with lots of water and broth and clear liquids. We’ll see how that goes.

Things 2014 – Week 4

January 26, 2014

Filed Under : life

tomato poached eggs | © karacooks.com

Things: Life

I’ve been addicted lately to tomato sauce poached eggs (image above). I’ll post about them soon – but really it’s simplicity itself, and so delicious for lunch or dinner!

I never realized how HARD it is to not spend money. Please tell me it’s not just me? My January spending freeze, although not 100% on target to date, has made me so much more aware of how much money I spend thoughtlessly, all the time. I have done a lot of “shopping” so far this month but no buying, and what fills my Amazon cart and dots my “to get” lists is really making me think.

My entire last week’s plan was thrown off when the garbage disposal under my kitchen sink blew a gasket. Not only did it take me 2 days to clean out the under-sink area of ground up food and gray water, it happened on the day before a holiday, so it was 3 full days before I could get a plumber out to fix it (I did try, but it was beyond my skill and patience level). So there was no cooking until Wednesday. (Luckily I had just run a load of dishes, so at least I didn’t have piles of dirty dishes sitting around.)

I read an article the other day (in a real, paper magazine, imagine that!) where the author pointed out that the 80s were more than 25 years ago, and therefore are now officially “Vintage”. Pardon me while I slip upstairs and quietly have a crisis.

I am fascinated by weather; I never want anyone to be hurt but watching these extreme storms and the power of nature is simply enthralling. One of my bucket list items is to go storm chasing myself and take photos. Something like this: Mike Hollingshead’s photos.

And finally, I got some early gift cards for my birthday this coming week, so I bought myself a present: Shun Premier Chef’s Knife, 8-Inch. Isn’t it pretty? I can’t wait until it gets here! I also bought a magnetic knife storage strip, but I’m not quite sure where I’m going to hang it yet. My cabinets are too low to accommodate my largest knife, so I’m going to have to get creative!

Things: Links

Recipe Review: Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk

January 24, 2014

Filed Under : main courses

chicken in milk | © karacooks.com

One of my goals for this year is to get back to trying new recipes, playing and tweaking and ultimately finding a few new things to add to my regular repertoire. As part of that I think I’ll start doing regular recipe reviews along the way, instead of waiting until I get to the “perfect” version of whatever recipe.

The first one in the series is Jamie Oliver’s Chicken in Milk. I’ve been fascinated by this recipe ever since I first saw it and I’m pretty sure I’ve had it pinned on Pinterest for the better part of 3 years! This week I finally made it – with a few changes. (I know, I know – I shouldn’t tweak until I’ve made the recipe as written at least once, but these were minor tweaks).

As written the recipe calls for a stick of cinnamon and some sage leaves. I didn’t have either of those, so I doubled up on the garlic and the lemon (using whole lemon slices, rather than just the zest). Everything else was exactly as in the recipe.

chicken in milk | © karacooks.com

The first thing that happened is that during the “fry it in olive oil” step, while turning the whole chicken, the skin over the breast stuck to the bottom of the pot and peeled right off the breast when I turned it, as you can see above. Sadness. I was really looking forward to that crispy, dark brown skin as part of the meal. Also, it meant that there wasn’t any protection over the breast while it roasted, so the breast wound up somewhat dry.

As it was roasting I could smell the garlic and the lemon, but there was also a very subtle sweet smell, which I’m attributing to the sugars in the milk as they cooked.

chicken in milk | © karacooks.com

When it came out of the oven, it looked pretty good, swimming in a vibrant yellow juice/broth. As I said, the breast was a little dry, so while the rest of the meal finished cooking, I rolled the chicken over so that the breast could soak in the sauce for a bit.

After about 15 mins, I removed the chicken to a plate (where I then pulled/cut the meat off the bones), and dipped out the bits of lemon and garlic from the sauce.

I used the stick blender on what was left and made a creamier gravy/sauce, based on the comments on the original recipe, and I”m glad I did.

I served this with roasted sweet potatoes – but next time I’d like to try it with some small white potatoes as I think they’d play better with the lemony, garlicky sauce.

Final Verdict: Even with the little bit of dry breast from being de-skinned and exposed it was delicious and flavorful. It’s something I’d make again with a few tweaks as follows:

I’d like to try this with chicken pieces rather than a whole chicken. I think it would be easier to brown individual pieces than to try to fry and rotate the whole chicken – and less chance of the skin peeling off and sticking. I also might add in some thyme, which I always have fresh in the front garden, and I’d like to try it with the addition of a cinnamon stick as the recipe calls for. Finally, I don’t think this recipe would work in a slow cooker or crock-pot, as it needs to cook uncovered at a higher temperature, and in a dry surrounded heat, for the milk and juices to evaporate some and thicken up.

Overall, 4/5 stars, and definitely something I’ll try again.

English Muffins

January 22, 2014

Filed Under : breads, scones, & muffins

english muffins | © karacooks.com

I don’t know why I got a wild hair the other day to make English muffins, but I did. I was surfing around looking at recipes and found this one-bowl recipe that didn’t require kneading, plus I had all of the ingredients already, and suddenly I just HAD to have English muffins.

And you know what? Now that I’ve had homemade English muffins I will never EVER buy another cardboard textured store bought muffin again. Even the best brand name muffins are nothing compared to how good these homemade ones were. They were light and fluffy, full of the “nooks and crannies”, and so delicious. And? Super easy to make. I never knew!

The recipe really couldn’t be easier. There’s no proofing the yeast, no slowly adding this or that ingredient. You just throw everything into the bowl of your mixer and mix until you have a slightly sticky dough – about 5-6 mins.

english muffins | © karacooks.com

You let the dough rise for about an hour, then divide it out into 16 pieces, roll those into balls, and flatten them slightly, then let them rise again for about 30 mins.

english muffins | © karacooks.com

Then you dust a griddle or a cast iron skillet with some cornmeal or semolina flour, and cook them slowly over a medium low heat until they’re browned on each side. I cooked mine in my large cast iron skillet but next time I’ll most likely use the electric griddle for two reasons:

  • They have a crisper brown crust and a lighter interior if you start them on a cold surface and let them cook as they come to temp (which is what I did with the first batch in the skillet).
  • I can fit all 16 at once on my griddle, instead of having to cook 4 or 5 at a time in batches. If you have to move them once they’ve risen the second time, they deflate slightly and you have fewer “nooks and crannies”.

My first batch of 5 that I started cold were definitely the best ones in terms of texture.

english muffins | © karacooks.com

You can see that I had a bit of a hot spot where the one got a little browner. Also, I “free formed” these muffins and so none of them were perfect circles. If you want them perfectly round, I’ve read recipes that say to put the dough round into a small (obviously well washed and dried) tuna can ring on the griddle. As the muffins rise and puff, they’ll shape to the can for that nice, even round shape. They’ll probably also rise a little higher as they’ll be forced up instead of allowed to sprawl out. I’m cool with lopsided muffins, but if you’re making them for a special occasion or a party and want them to be perfect and pretty, you might try the tuna can ring (or pineapple can, or whatever little round, flat can you can find).

And that’s it. Super simple – one bowl, a little rising time, and a hot griddle. Then, of course, split with a fork (NEVER a knife), toast, and add butter!

english muffins | © karacooks.com

Yum!

English Muffins

(via King Arthur Flour)

english muffins | © karacooks.com

  • 1 3/4 cups lukewarm milk
  • 3 tablespoons softened butter
  • 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 4 1/2 cups King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast

Combine all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix for 5-7 mins. This is a fairly sticky, stretchy dough, so don’t think you need to add more flour. If you need to use a scraper or a spatula to pull it away from the sides of the bowl for the first rise, do so.

Scrape the dough into a rough ball, cover, and let rise about an hour or so. Then gently deflate the dough (don’t knead or punch, just press) and divide it into 16 pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, gently flatten them, and let them rise another 20-30 mins 

It’s best if you let the second rise take place on the griddle or pan that your’e going to cook them on. If you have to cook them in batches, put the rounds on a piece of parchment or wax paper so that you can easily lift and transfer them to the pan for cooking.

Use a heavy griddle or frying pan to for cooking and try to start all of them at once on the cold pan. You can pack these fairly close together since they don’t spread or rise much during the cooking process.

Cook them over low heat for anywhere from 7-15 mins per side (depending on whether you started with a cold surface or a hot one), until the crust is golden brown.

Nutrition Information per muffin:
Cals: 160 | Protein: 6g | Fat: 3g | Carbs: 28g | Fiber: 1g | Sodium 200mg

Meal Planning Monday – 2014 Week 4

January 20, 2014

Filed Under : miscellaneous food

cheddar & jalapeno cornbread | © karacooks.com

As I mentioned in Sunday’s post, I wound up going out Friday night, so I skipped that day of my plan, but otherwise, last week was pretty on target. I also am at a total of $193 spent on groceries for the month so far (including the weekend after NYE dinner splurge with Z). That puts me exactly on target for my $100 a week or less goal.

I haven’t replaced my slow-cooker due to the January spending freeze, but I’m starting to struggle with that. So many of my winter cook-at-home dishes are slow cooker based. I’m about to say that this would be a justified spend as it will help me keep on track with healthy eating and my food budget.

That’s my dilemma for the coming week and payday!

Also I’ve been craving citrus lately, especially grapefruit, so I’m hoping I can find some good grapefruit at the store to add to my lunches or breakfasts.

As always breakfast and lunch are smoothies/yogurt/fruit/veg and leftovers.

Weekday Dinners

  • Monday – Chicken and black bean enchiladas
  • Tuesday – Stuffed cabbage rolls with homemade tomato sauce
  • Wednesday – Salmon croquettes, broccoli
  • Thursday – Chicken Marsala
  • Friday – Leftovers

Saturday & Sunday Dinners / Cooking 

I dug up an old recipe for authentic tamales the other day and I’d love to be able to spend the weekend making homemade tamales. It’s a full weekend project, though, so we’ll see if that happens or not!

Things 2014 – Week 3

January 19, 2014

Filed Under : life

hot toddy mix | © karacooks.com

I got a surprise invitation to a Bat Mitzvah on Friday night and had the best time. I’d forgotten how much fun those parties are! The DJ at this one was particularly creative and had the kids running all over the place on scavenger hunts and games – equally fun for the adults who were called upon to provide a left shoe or a single earring or some other object for documentation!

The rest of the week was filled with work, work, and more work. We’re finally getting back into the swing of things as the schedule normalizes, and it’s kept me on my toes.

I was 90% on with my meal plan this week. Obviously since I was at the Bat Mitzvah, I didn’t make my planned salmon croquettes (instead I got to eat poached salmon and roast beef!) I still have the cans of salmon, so I';l roll those over to next week.

The January spending freeze took a little hit. I have been working from home so long and my weight has fluctuated so much that I didn’t have anything appropriate to wear to the party on Friday. I lucked out with a quick shopping trip to Kohl’s and a little gray dress and a pair of tights for $48. 

One of my projects for last week was to get a bunch of the junk cleaned out of my closet so that next month I can get the dresser installed and the whole closet project finished. I set myself a goal of just removing 5 items a day. Once I got started, I usually got quite a bit more than that done, and as a result, most of the stuff in my closet is now stuff that actually belongs there. Plus I added a few more items to my stack of things to Freecycle. Whoo!

I think I’m going to bail on the January cure. While the intentions of it are good, the items in the list don’t quite fit with what I need to be doing and focusing on this month. I’m glad I started it because it did force me to survey the house and make some needed lists that will help me the rest of the year. But for now – I’m happy with what I did and I’ll maybe revisit it later in the year.

I haven’t touched my Irish course this week and I need to get back to it. I’m making it a goal to set aside time each evening for one lesson. I’ll be revisiting the first set of lessons this coming week along with the Irish Grammar that Z got me as an early birthday present.

Things That Were Interesting or Amusing

Things for the House

  • Be More With Less posted a list of 25 Ways to Simplify Your Life. The subtitle is “In 10 mins or less” but some of those are more than 10 min projects. Even so, it’s a good list and I plan to revisit it.
  • I recognize that I have a box problem and I probably need an intervention, but I do love these burlap covered boxes from Ikea. I know I could find a place to use them!

 

Basic Red (Tomato) Sauce

January 17, 2014

Filed Under : homemade staples

tomato sauce | © karacooks.com

Many years ago I knew someone who married into the quintessential close-knit New York Italian family. She told me that she knew she’d truly been accepted into the family when her husband’s grandmother taught her how to make the family recipe for tomato gravy (which is, I’m told, what real Italians call tomato sauce). One long winter weekend at her place, she taught me the recipe and the technique. She and I drifted apart over the years and eventually went our separate ways, but the recipe and technique for this incredible sauce have stuck with me ever since.

The thing about this red sauce is that it’s dead simple. It really is. It’s made with a minimum of seasonings and ingredients – tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, and basil. Because it’s so simple, it acts as a stepping off point for any variation you want to make or application you want to use it in. Eat it just as it is, tasting of fresh tomatoes and garlic or:

  • cook it down to thicken, add oregano and make pizza sauce
  • add a ladle or two of this sauce to browned meat/sausage and make a bolognese
  • use it as a base to braise short ribs
  • poach or bake eggs in it
  • add horseradish sauce to it for an Italian twist on cocktail sauce
  • braise stuffed cabbage rolls in it
  • simmer some diced veggies in it (mushrooms, zucchini … ) and spoon it over spaghetti squash
  • use it in your lasagna and parmagiana recipes
  • add it to minestrone soup
  • use it as a starter base for Manhattan style clam chowder
  • use it in ratatouille
  • braise meatballs in it or use it to make meatball subs
  • add a little more liquid and some milk or cream and make tomato soup

Nowadays I make this sauce at least once a month, and two or three times a year I make an enormous triple batch to divide up and freeze. It really is one of my go-to freezer items when I’m feeling tired or lazy and don’t want to put a lot of effort into cooking.

tomato sauce | © karacooks.com

Making this sauce is as much about technique as it is about ingredients, but don’t skimp on cheap ingredients either. Because there are so few, it’s important that what you use be good quality so the flavor shines through.

Finally, before I get to the nitty gritty of the recipe, if you don’t pay attention to any other part of this post, take this part to heart: A good tomato gravy / red sauce is about taste and feel. Don’t get hung up on measurements or freaking out about exactly 2 cups or exactly 1 tbsp. Some people like more garlic. Some people don’t feel it’s authentic tomato sauce without oregano. Maybe you only have 4 carrots. Maybe you have tomato puree, but not tomato paste. Maybe you want to add a few red pepper flakes and make it spicy.

All of that is OK. Don’t become a slave to the recipe. Make it once as written and then play with it. Stick with the basic techniques and make it your own. This is what cooking is about.

tomato sauce | © karacooks.com

Onward!

Basic Italian Red Sauce

Make sure you have a good quality 3-4 quart, heavy bottomed pot. Anything cheap and lightweight will have hotspots and will scorch the sauce.

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped carrots
3 15oz cans of diced tomatoes
1 6oz can of tomato paste
2 cups of water
1 tsp dried basil or 5ish leaves of fresh basil minced
1 tbsp sugar (optional)
1-2 tsp salt (optional)

Put the chopped onion and olive oil into the pot and cook slowly over low heat. The onions should become translucent and limp with absolutely NO browning. This is really important; if you find little browned bits, pick them out. If you’re getting a lot of browned bits, turn down the heat. Browned bits will add bitterness to the sauce, and will also mess with the texture of the final product (no one wants crunchy tomato sauce!). This step can take up to 40 mins. Don’t rush it.

When the onions are completely cooked through and tender, add the garlic, chopped carrots, diced tomatoes (juice and all), tomato paste, and water.

Bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat and cook (uncovered) until it’s reduced by about 1/3. This could take anywhere from 90 mins to 3 hours. Don’t rush it and don’t raise the heat too much. You don’t want to scorch the bottom.

When the sauce has reduced down and it nicely thick, use an immersion blender or a regular blender or food processor in batches, puree the sauce. Blend it as thick or as chunky as you like, but make sure there aren’t any big chunks of carrot or onion in the sauce.

To the puree, add your basil, sugar, and salt (optional). More sugar or salt can be added to taste, but start with the minimum. The quality and sweetness of the tomatoes often guides the amount of sweet and salt you need to add.

If you’re just going to use it plain or freeze it, let it simmer for 30-45 minutes, giving it an occasional stir with a wooden spoon. This lets the flavors completely blend. Serve it as is or cool it and freeze it for later.

If you’re going to make a meat sauce, or a vegetable sauce, add mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, or whatever veggies you want. Or add browned beef or sausage. Then simmer for 30-45 mins.

This recipe makes 6 cups of sauce. A serving (depending on your appetite) is about 1/2 cup of sauce, so the recipe as written makes 12 servings.

Nutritional information per 1/2 cup:
Cals: 65 | Protein: 4g | Fat: 1.3g | Carbs: 11.9g | Sugar: 6.6g | Fiber: 2.4g | Sodium: 533mg

 

Makes 6 cups

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

January 15, 2014

Filed Under : soups & stews

butternut squash soup | © karacooks.com

When a friend on Twitter asked me if i had a good butternut soup recipe, I assured her I did and that I would blog it soon. That was … um … 3 months ago? Oops! A few days ago when I came back to actually blog it, I found no fewer than 5 drafts of posts on the topic. So apparently I did have good intentions, just really poor follow through.

So, with apologies to Janine for the delay .. here’s my butternut soup recipe!

A lot of people are scared to work with butternut squash because they have a reputation of being difficult to cut and peel. It’s true, they can be tricky, especially if you’re unsure of your knife skills or don’t have good sharp knives to work with, but a sharp knife and a little confidence and you’ll be fine. I promise I’ve never lost a finger (or even part of a finger) to a butternut squash!

[Note: Dull knives are one of the leading causes of knife injuries in the kitchen. A dull knife is more likely to slip and cut a finger than a sharp one, which will penetrate into whatever you're cutting. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you buy a good quality, SHARP kitchen knife, and keep it sharp and honed. It will revolutionize your cooking, I promise. My favorite knife of all time and the one I use most in the kitchen is the Shun DM0706 Classic 8-Inch Chef's Knife.]

In order of the above:

  1. Start off by slicing the ends off of your squash. The stem end especially is where most knives get stuck or hung up, so getting rid of it right off the bat makes slicing the squash 100x easier. It also gives you a flat bit to set your squash on, so you can cut it with some stability.
  2. Slice the squash in half lengthwise, being sure to keep the halves as even as possible.
  3. Use a tablespoon to scoop out the seeds and stringy bits from the core (I actually sometimes use a grapefruit spoon – the one with a serrated edge. I’ve never actually used a grapefruit spoon to eat grapefruit, but it’s invaluable for scooping seeds out of all kinds of fruits and veg!).
  4. Lay your halved and seeded butternut on a pan and spray or drizzle with olive oil, then generously salt and pepper the halves.
  5. Roast them in a 400°F oven for about an hour. If you can penetrate all the way through the squash with a regular dinner fork, it’s done. The squash may get dark brown on the top during roasting and this is fine, but if you don’t want the roasted bits in your soup (or you want a perfectly smooth soup), then cover the squash with foil while you bake it. I like the roasted, caramelized bits in soup, but it’s all a matter of personal taste.
  6. While your squash is roasting, dice up an onion and begin to sweat it and some garlic in olive oil in a large, heavy bottomed pot (I use my 3 qt dutch oven) over medium heat. Let it get super tender and the onion translucent but not browned.
  7. Once your squash is roasted, use a tablespoon to scoop out the flesh into the pot with the onion and garlic.
  8. You should wind up with about 4 cups of squash.
  9. Pour 4-6 cups of chicken stock (or vegetable stock, if you want a vegetarian version), and simmer for 20-30 mins.
  10. If you like a chunky soup, mash with a potato masher or a fork and give it a good stir. I like a creamier soup, so I like to use my immersion blender to thoroughly blend all the bits and pieces together.
    If you like to make creamy, pureed soups like that, I can’t recommend enough that you get a stick/immersion blender. This is the one I have and I use it at least 2x – 3x a week: Cuisinart CSB-75BC Smart Stick 2-Speed Immersion Hand Blender, Brushed Chrome

Once it’s blended to the consistency you like, taste it and add seasonings; start with salt and pepper and maybe add a swirl of cream or yogurt to dress it up.

This soup is thick, rich, and delicious just as it is, and is one of my favorite wintertime lunches, but there are plenty of ways to jazz it up, too. That’s the wonderful thing about butternut soup – and really any squash soup – is it’s flexibility.

butternut squash soup | © karacooks.com

Once you’re comfortable with the basic techniques, don’t be afraid to change this up to suit your tastes. You can add in some cream or half and half to make this a richer, heavier soup for those cold winter months. Or you can mix the butternut with other roasted vegetables (cauliflower comes to mind) or even with fruit (apples and butternut go great together). You can add spice or curry to make it a more savory soup, or you can add sweeteners like sugar or honey and a dash of cinnamon or ginger.

The best thing about soup is that there really aren’t recipes, so much as guidelines and you can tweak them in dozens of different ways to make a soup that you absolutely love.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

butternut squash soup | © karacooks.com

  • 1 large butternut squash or 2 medium ones (about 1.5 lbs whole, 4 cups of roasted flesh)
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled and diced
  • 2-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (or other oil of your choice)
  • 4-6 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
  • additional olive oil for spraying/drizzling
  • salt & pepper to taste

Half and seed the butternut squash. Place it on a cookie sheet or pan lined with foil and roast in a 400°F oven for 45 mins to an hour. Remove it from the oven when you can pierce it all the way through with a regular table fork. (Cover with foil if it begins to brown too much.)

While the squash is roasting, cook the onions and the garlic in the olive oil, in a heavy pot over medium-low heat. Don’t let the onions get too browned and crispy or you’ll get crunchy bits in your finished soup.

Once the squash is done and cool enough to touch, scoop the flesh into the pot with the onions and garlic, and add 4-6 cups of chicken stock. 4 cups will make a thicker soup and 6 cups will make a thinner soup. If you’re planning on adding milk or cream, stick with the 4 cups of broth.

Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer for 20-30 mins, just to let the flavors blend. Mash with a fork or use an immersion blender to puree the soup. (You can also use the method of transferring batches to a standing blender and pureeing it that way, but I find this messy and annoying, so I use my stick blender).

Serve garnished with a little sour cream or yogurt, and maybe a sprinkle of sage.

This soup can be seasoned right before the simmering stage by adding the spices of your choice – savory or hot spices like paprika or cumin or curry, or sweet spices like ginger or cinnamon. Feel free to experiment and see which you like better.

Makes 6 1-cup servings

Nutrition info per 1 cup serving
Calories: 84 | Protein: 5g | Fat: 3g | Carbs: 14g | Fiber: 2g

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