Archive | June, 2012

Viva Italia: Basic Homemade Marinara Sauce

30 Jun

Amici miei, if there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that I am Italian. Not Italian and French, not Italian and Greek, not Italian and a-little-bit-of-something-else-European: my people, both maternal and paternal, hail from The Boot and The Boot alone. (Well, unless you could Sicily, the Soccer Ball Being Kicked Around By Said Boot, as a separate entity. Then I’m 50/50.)

Note: I hail from regions with good food. #proudlineage.

And as such, I’ve made it a point to slowly but surely learn my mother’s and grandmothers’ cadre of southern Italian specialties. Hopefully in that totally Zen, made-from-scratch-without-actual-measurements kind of way.

Which means, thankfully, that I can share these recipes with you! (Minus Pop Pop’s cannoli. My aunts are taking that one to the grave.) The first is known by many names: “gravy” in New Jersey, red sauce, or my favorite, a Basic Marinara. The beauty of this sauce is that you can easily adapt it into a Bolognese, a chunkier Pomodoro, or any other slew of tomato-based pasta and pizza sauces. I’ll even use this sauce in its simplest form as a pizza base. Fresh, easy, and delicious: killer combo, indeed.

Basic Marinara (serves 4-6 over pasta, or fewer with leftovers)

You’ll need:

  • Olive oil
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 white onion, diced
  • 1 whole carrot, or 3-5 baby carrots, diced (optional)
  • 2 or 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp dried parsley
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tbsp dried basil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 32-oz cans of crushed tomatoes
  • optional: 1 small can tomato paste

Here’s what you do:

  • Heat the olive oil and butter over medium-low heat until bubbly. Add the onion, carrot, and garlic cloves, stirring regularly and cooking until the onions are translucent. (The carrots will take longer.)

Ooh, steamy.

  • When the onions are translucent, add your herbs, salt, pepper and bay leaf. Sautée a few minutes longer, or until the sauce base is aromatic and the carrots seem mostly cooked through.

Mixin de veggies, mixin de veggies. (And yes, my hands are covered in flour. Oops!)

  • Add your cans of crushed tomatoes (and tomato paste if using; the paste adds a great “cooked all day” flavor, but I prefer it in pasta sauces over pizza sauce. Depends on how you’re using your marinara) to the pot, mixing thoroughly. Lower the heat slightly (around 2 or 3 on your stovetop dial), cover, and let it sit for a good 2-5 hours. Stir occasionally. If you’re in a pinch time-wise, it’s usually pretty tasty after an hour, but the longer it stews, the richer and more flavorful your sauce will become.

Mmmmm. ‘Nuff said.

  • Note: Remove the bay leaf before serving! While it imparts a great flavor, unless you’re playing “Whoever Finds the Inedible Bay Leaf Gets an Extra Meatball,” you should scoop that bad boy outta there.
  • Pour over cooked pasta when you’re ready to eat. If you’re making meatballs (recipe pending), add these after about 2 hours of cooking time, letting them stew with the sauce until you’re ready to eat.

As Neil Simon once (allegedly) said, “There are two laws in the universe: the law of gravity, and everyone loves Italian food.” Mangia mangia, indeed.

Are any of you lovely folks of the Italian persuasion? Or just great big fans of Italian cuisine? What are your basic marinara recipes? Or are you pesto people? Happy Eating!

Here, Chickie Chickie: Chipotle-Lime Chicken Quesadillas

29 Jun

We’re back! (A Dinosaur’s Story! … which I never saw. Clearly because the movie did not contain any quesadillas. Duh.) The “Here Chickie Chickie” posts continue with the latest in my series of what-can-I-do-with-my-rotisserie-chicken recipes and ideas. For the original post on shredding your chicken, click here. If you’d like to revisit our Chef’s Salad, click here.

This one’s a pretty simple Chipotle-Lime Chicken Quesadilla, where the meat gets most of its flavor from fresh lime juice and chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. If you’re not familiar with Mexican food, chipotle peppers in adobo sauce are the source of that “smoky, spicy, what-on-earth-IS-that-deliciousness?” flavor that you’ll find in a lot of Mex-Mex and Tex-Mex dishes. If you’re a fan of Rachael Ray, she frequently adds these to Mexican and other dishes to add a much-wanted kick to some otherwise bland flavors. Serious nom nom nom.

Chipotle Peppers in Adobo. Even Pastene — my favorite brand of canned tomatoes — sells these bad boys.

(Note: This recipe makes enough for 2 large quesadillas; you can easily expand it to as many servings as you like, depending on how much chicken / how many tortillas you have.)

So many chicken noms … Eat All Teh Noms!

You’ll need:

  • Rotisserie Chicken meat, preferably shredded. You could also easily make these with cubed cooked chicken breast meat.
  • 1 Chipotle pepper in adobo (finely chopped), or a 1/2 tsp of the adobo sauce if you’re kind of a weakling like me looking for a less spicy version
  • 1/2 of a white onion, diced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1 lime (You’ll need the juice of 1/2 for the quesadillas, and slices for serving)
  • 1-2 tsp Mexican seasoning blend / taco seasoning blend. You can also substitute cumin, chili powder, and garlic powder.
  • 1 bag Mexican-blend cheese — this usually includes Monterey Jack, cheddar, and a few others. If you’re looking to be really authentic, try some DEEE-licious queso fresco.
  • 2 large tortillas (I used whole wheat and spinach)
  • salsa / lime juice for serving

Here’s what you do:

  • In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the chicken, chipotle pepper, white onion, tomato, juice of 1/2 a lime, and seasoning blend until well-combined.

Try adding chopped green pepper to this for an extra crunch — or Sriracha for extra heat!

  • Heat a pan or cast iron skillet over medium-low to medium heat (about 4 or 5 on the stove dial). Meanwhile, sprinkle as much cheese as you like onto each tortilla.

Dang quesadillas-to-be. (Better than Napoleon Dynamite’s, let me tell you.)

  • Add 1/2 of the meat mixture to each tortilla and fold them in half. Cook each quesadilla in the heated pan (add cooking spray just before, unless it’s nonstick) for about 4-5 minutes on each side, or until the tortillas are toasted and all the filling is heated through. (Ooey-gooey-melted-cheese is what you’re going for here!)

Toasty tortilla — what a beauty. (This one’s the History Teacher’s; extra-large!)

  • Cut into 4 wedges and serve with lime slices, salsa, sour cream, and whatever sides you like.

The best part about using the meat this way is how budget-friendly it is. A packet of tortillas is likely lurking in your fridge anyway, along with whatever vegetables or cheese blends you have hiding in said fridge’s drawers. These quesadillas are a lot like the “pasta stir-fries” and “breakfast tacos” of your first post-college apartment days: take what you’ve got, throw it together in a semi-coherent fashion, and voila: actual sustenance beyond My Friend Ramen Noodle. It’s the flavor additions — the chipotle peppers, the freshly squeezed lime juice — that take these quesadillas to the next level. Look, Ma! I’m actually kind of a grown-up now! 🙂

Furthermore, the beauty of making quesadillas is how versatile their contents can be. Got eggs, ham, and barbecue sauce? How about a Breakfast Quesadilla? Got a can of black beans lurking in your pantry? Mash ’em up with salsa, chopped onion and some herbs, spread the mixture on your tortilla with cheese, and you’ve got a Veggie Quesadilla extraordinaire. The History Teacher even made a pizza-esque quesadilla the next day after combining spare tomato sauce, meatballs, some sliced mushrooms and provolone cheese. An Italian-dilla?Why not? Ciao Bella and Adios!

Stay tuned for a few more Here, Chickie Chickie updates in the next few days, including a Cast Iron Skillet Pizza that may or may not have resulted in an epic 2nd degree burn-fest for yours truly. Note to self: hot skillet will remain hot for quite some time. 

Here, Chickie Chickie: Rotisserie Chicken Chef’s Salad

27 Jun

It’s a bird! (No, it actually is a bird.) It’s a plane! (It’s … just “plane” good? Oif.) It’s … our friend the rotisserie chicken, back for the first of many meals-using-its-chickeny-goodness recipes.

Courtesy of ifood.tv. Just imagine a Superman cape photoshopped onto this bad boy.

An earlier post discusses how to shred the meat for mass consumption / multi-recipe-usage — check it out for ideas. I’ll also be posting several other recipes, including quesadillas, an outrageously good cast iron skillet pizza, and more. Stay tuned, my friends.

For now, this Chef’s Salad is a simple summertime dinner, or a nice-size lunch to share with company. It’s also a great way to use up random veggies, cheeses, or lunch meats on your fridge. What up with that.

Oooh-WEE. You know this guy wants some Chef’s Salad.

You’ll need:

  • Shredded meat from a rotisserie chicken (enough to feed 2-4 people; the serving sizes are up to you)
  • Sliced deli cheese (I used provolone, always a classic)
  • A smattering of veggies — I used tomatoes, cucumbers & carrots, but this is a great time to use up other leftovers! I’d also think about:
  • Green beans (quickly blanched, then dropped in an ice bath to stop the cooking process)
  • Broccoli (same process, unless you prefer yours raw)
  • Hard-boiled eggs, diced up
  • Sliced deli meat (I know ham is a classic; perhaps your salad can go meat-lovers-style?)
  • Romaine lettuce (though green leaf, bibb, and even iceberg can work really well)

Here’s what you do:

  • Rinse, pat dry, and tear lettuce leaves into bite-size-ish pieces. You’ll want enough lettuce to cover the bottom of your serving platter. Arrange said leaves along the bottom of your platter.
  • Cut most of your veggies into bite-size chunks. This also applies to hard-boiled eggs, if you’re using them. If you’re adding green beans, keeping them whole has a really nice effect to it. (Almost a salad nicoise, for my fellow French-speakers / Francophiles out there.)
  • Stack 3-4 slices of the deli cheese, and cut them into strips. Do the same with your lunch meat, if you’re using any.
  • If you like, season the shredded chicken by adding a bit of freshly chopped parsley (for color and that tasty clean flavor), a drizzle of olive oil, and a sprinkle of black pepper and a dash of garlic salt. Short, sweet, and to the point.
  • Arrange each individual item in a “stripe” that crosses your platter. You should end up with a downright aesthetically pleasing series of rows of your favorite ingredients. 
  • Serve with your Homemade Croutons, and whatever dressings you like. I’d try a simple drizzle of red wine vinegar and olive oil, or an easygoing Italian (like me! Haha, and we’re done with the jokes now). Can’t beat it.

Salad noms. The diced carrots add some cute color, no?

Review and a Recipe: The Quarry House

26 Jun

Picture it (you should be reading this in the Sophia from “Golden Girls” voice, by the way):

My inspiration in all aspects of life. No, but seriously.

Silver Spring, Maryland, 1926. A time when alcohol was banned in the United States, and we young folks found ourselves in strange establishments called “speakeasies,” hunting for booze in secretive locations around the city. It was exciting! It was romantic! It was probably unhygienic, given that we were in basements and back rooms. (God, I love that show. I may or may not be writing the rest of this review with her voice in my head.)

One of these former speakeasies can still be found today, open and operating in a basement under an Indian restaurant (how’s that for sitcom-esque?) right on Georgia Ave in Silver Spring. This fantastic, deliciously dive-y establishment is known as the Quarry House, and after visiting several times since I’ve moved to the DMV, I’m totally in love.

First, the booze: The Quarry House is known for having one of the most extensive whiskey and beer menus in the area, and for good region: their 10+ page beer menu is known as the Beericulum Vitae, and that doesn’t even include their dozens upon dozens of whiskeys, scotches, and other spirits behind the bar. There’s a shorter menu of rotating draft selections, too, if your indecisive self you want fewer choices. My advice? Try something a little unconventional. If it wasn’t for the Quarry House, I wouldn’t have come to appreciate various local Maryland brews, like The Raven Special Lager (how literary is that Poe-cuteness?) and others that they proudly display among other American, European and global offerings.

Just one of approx. 80 million pages.

Then, the grub. In some ways, you have your classic bar snacks, but with some twists: sandwiches, tacos, homemade chips, three kinds of pupusas, a.k.a. filled-nuggets-of-Salvadorian-deliciousness. Most of us ordered their super-tasty burgers on our last outing — if you opt for beef, they’re cooked just as you like — none of this “undercooked beef will cause you all sorts of nasty diseases” nonsense for the red meat lovers. The History Teacher (the boy’s official nickname from now onward) got a burger with bacon, Swiss, barbecue sauce and grilled onions, along with your basic burger fixins. Let’s just say its time of extinction was around 5 minutes after it arrived. I went with a veggie burger — a flavorful blend of what looked like beans, carrots and other veg-friendly ingredients — topped with soy cheese and grilled onions. Very happy camper, party of GKG.

But the ultimate, incredible, oh-good-Lord-do-I-need-these-now item that we ordered? Old Bay Tater Tots. I’m sorry, did my computer start malfunctioning? It must have, given that it’s covered in drool.

Did you know that crack came in spice form? I didn’t until I moved to Maryland. Good to know.

So simple: fried little potato nuggets, smothered in Old Bay’s spicy mystery blend of goodness. But they were, seriously, a revelation. Especially with a brewski and burger on hand.

To recreate these at home, you can easily just sprinkle Old Bay on top of your garden-variety tater tots. Or, you can take them to the next level, and try these Old Bay Sweet Potato Pan Fries. Thank the History Teacher for this one.

From our friends at simplyrecipes.com. Just imagine these smothered in Old Bay.


You’ll need:

  • Old Bay
  • 2 Sweet Potatoes / Yams
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups oil (vegetable works fine)

Here’s what you do:

  1. Peel the sweet potatoes, and slice them into whatever size fry you prefer. (They make great steak fries)
  2. Heat the oil on medium-high to high heat, until a drop of water sizzles when you drop it into the pan. (If you have a deep fryer, trust whatever indicator it gives you)
  3. Fry the potatoes for about 10-ish minutes, or until crispy. Remove them with a slotted spoon, and place them on a plate lined with paper towels to drain. You can also give ’em a pat down with those paper towels to remove excess oil.
  4. Once they’re slightly cool, sprinkle ’em with as much Old Bay as you like. (Unless your sodium levels are a concern, there is no such thing as “too little Old Bay.”) Toss ’em to coat, and serve to the ravenous hordes.

Any Marylanders out there who can speak to the wonders of Old Bay? Or, if you live in the DMV, have you been to the Quarry House? If not, get your butt to downtown Silver Spring!

Food Shopping: When to Go Organic?

26 Jun

ImageWhen I think of “organic produce,” a few images come to mind:

1. Glowing yoga masters consuming oodles of freshly-juiced fruits and veggies

2. A guilt-monster gnawing at my stomach for not buying more “green” produce, given that I pride myself on going green elsewhere in my life. (Woohoo recycling!)

3. Fields upon fields of beautiful, and HELLA expensive, green things.

4. My rapidly emptying wallet.

Strugglebus much?

Which is why, when I recently read an article on Treehugger discussing which produce items to buy organically (and which wouldn’t blacken your soul if you didn’t), I was intrigued. According to their wise and well-researched folks, these foods should definitely be organic:

Image

Who would’ve thought? The number 1 evildoer!

1. Apples (apparently 98% of apple varieties had detectable levels of pesticides! Ew!)
2. Celery
3. Sweet bell peppers
4. Peaches
5. Strawberries
6. Imported nectarines
7. Grapes
8. Spinach
9. Lettuce
10. Cucumbers
11. Domestic blueberries
12. Potatoes

They call them “The Dirty Dozen,” which I found pretty hilarious.

Image

I don’t always eat my vegetables, but when I do, I go organic.

In contrast, the “Clean Fifteen” included the following winners:

1. Onions (They’ll make you cry, but not because of their pesticides! Heh heh, I kill myself.)
2. Sweet corn
3. Pineapples
4. Avocado
5. Cabbage
6. Sweet peas
7. Asparagus
8. Mangoes
9. Eggplant
10. Kiwi
11. Domestic cantaloupe
12. Sweet potatoes
13. Grapefruit
14. Watermelon
15. Mushrooms

So the running theme: If it’s got a peel that you plan on eating, give it a wash or go organic. If it’s on the latter list, you’re probably either avoiding pesticides overall, or peeling / removing its outermost layer will help mucho in the non-pesticide-eating process. Who knew?

For those of you counting your pennies (and dimes, and quarters … ), I think it all comes down to balance. Remember that not every veg has to be organic in order for your conscience to be clean. Also, going local is just as beneficial for the environment, especially when many small-scale farmers (like the type you’ll find at your nearby farmers market) are likely farming pesticide-free anyway. If you buy some of the “Dirty Dozen” produce at your farmers market, and in season, your conscience will be clear. For more tips on how to make healthy eating decisions, check out sites like Best Food Facts or Treehugger.  Go internet! Beat non-informed-consumption-of-green-things!

(Lee Marvin could use some of those organic veggies, huh? The man looks pretty vitamin-deficient.)

Iron It Out: Stone Fruit Upside-Down Cake in a Cast Iron Skillet

23 Jun

Image courtesy of our friends at HuffPost Food. My skillet is just as drop dead gorgeous.

Ladies and gentlemen, there is a new special someone in my life. Don’t worry — nothing has happened to my gentleman friend (Fun Blog Nickname pending). No, I’m talking about the deep love between a woman and her cooking supplies: specifically, my new-found adoration for the latest addition to my kitchen, my cast iron skillet.

I recently visited my favorite DC-area kitchen store, Hill’s Kitchen in Capitol Hill. While I normally peruse their goods for the sole purpose of spending time in a hallowed hall of culinary awesomeness, I stopped by this time with the intention of  buying. No more window shopping! Time to get serious. And for only $22.95, a cast iron skillet was made mine.

So many possibilities! What would I bake? Could I whip up traditional cornbread like the best of ’em? Make an impromptu frittata, like Harrison Ford does at his curmudgeonly best in “Morning Glory?”

Instead, for my first trick with my new friend, I whipped up a Stone Fruit Upside-Down Cake. This time of year, various stone fruits (peaches, plums, cherries, nectarines) are so abundant, fresh and delicious. This recipe is closely adapted from a delicious cast iron skillet Upside Down Cake by David Lebovitz.

For the fruit and syrup bottom of the cake, you’ll need:

  • 3 tbsp margarine (easily substitute unsalted butter)
  • 1/2 packed cup brown sugar
  • A splash of maple syrup
  • Enough slices of fruit to cover the bottom of the pan. I used plums, a peach or two, fresh cherries, a green apple (surprisingly good with its stone fruit friends), and raisins. DEFINITELY try the raisins — they’re transformed when you cook with them this way.

For the actual cake, you’ll need:

  • 8 tbsp stick margarine (again, easily substitute unsalted butter)
  • 3/4 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 room-temperature eggs (just let ’em chill on the counter for 20-30 mins while you prep the syrup and fruit layer)
  • 1 and 1/2 cups white flour
  • 1 and 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup room-temperature milk (I used 2% without any issues, but skim probably wouldn’t work here.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Melt the 3 tbsp margarine in your pre-heated (medium-ish) cast iron skillet. Once the margarine is melted and slightly bubbly, add the brown sugar and splash of maple syrup. Keep stirring until the mixture is evenly combined, has thickened a bit, and begins to bubble into a kind of caramel. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the sugary goodness to cool.
  2. Slice your fruit and arrange it however you like on the bottom of the pan (as in, resting in the sugary goodness). I used something of a traditional pinwheel, with cherries and raisins in a ring around the outside, and alternating slices of green apple, plum, and peach in a spiral.
  3. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  4. Start by beating the sugar and 8 tbsp margarine together (I used a Sunbelt hand-held mixer) until well-combined, light and fluffy-looking. Then, beat in both eggs and the vanilla on low to medium speed. Add each egg one at a time for even mixing.
  5. In a separate bowl, use a whisk to sift together your flour, baking powder and salt. (If you have a sifter, rock that bad boy.) Then, gently add 1/2 of the flour mixture to the bowl of wet ingredients, stirring with a spoon. Alternate 1/2 of the flour mixture with your milk, then add the rest of the flour mixture. Do not over mix! If you do, you’ll send the flour’s gluten into hyperdrive and end up with one nasty, gummy cake. (Ew.)
  6. Once the cake batter is mixed, spread it over the fruit layer in your cast iron skillet. Make sure the batter reaches the sides; you’ll know the cake is done baking when it begins to separate from the sides again.
  7. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour; the surface should be golden brown, and a toothpick should come out clean.
  8. After letting the cake cool for 20 minutes, use a dinner plate to gently flip over your cake. Then, you should be staring some glisteny, fruity goodness right in the face.

Oops, is that drool on my keyboard?

Do you guys love your cast iron skillets like whoa? What have you used them to make / bake / whip up?

Salad Noms: Homemade Croutons

23 Jun

Chatham Village croutons, those little nuggets of crunchy goodness, are delicious (like, crack-in-crouton-form delicious), delightful, and … de-expensive. Last time I checked, those bad boys were selling for more than $7 on Amazon (yes, apparently you can buy groceries on Amazon. Thank you, Google, for that fun fact). As much as I love me some crunchy crouton goodness, buying them from the grocery store feels silly and impractical (budget-wise) when I can, just as easily, make them myself.

So, I did! And you will, too. Here’s what you need for Herby Croutons:

  • 4-6 slices of day-old bread (brand, type, grain = all up to you. I used a loaf of Pepperidge Farm “Light Style” wheat)
  • Olive Oil
  • Cooking spray
  • Dried herbs (I used basil, thyme, and parsley)
  • Garlic salt
  • Black pepper
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Cut the slices of bread into cubes, about 1/2″ x 1/2″. Size and shape are really up to you.

    Image

    Stack ’em and use a good knife for easy chopping.

  2. Spray a cookie sheet with cooking spray (I use Giant brand Canola Oil spray), and arrange the cubes on the cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake them for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown.

    Image

    All lined up for their glamor shot, pre-tanning session.

  3. When they’re done and slightly cooled, toss them in a mixing bowl with a drizzle or two of Olive Oil. Meanwhile, mix together the garlic salt, pepper, and a smattering of dried herbs to your liking. (The herbs should equal about 2 teaspoons in total.) I used my mortar and pestle to crush the dried herbs, which releases their essential oils.

    Image

    Just before I crushed ’em to bits.

  4. Toss everything together in your mixing bowl until the croutons are well coated with your herby-herb mixture.
  5. Enjoy! With the herb combination I used, these croutons are especially good on Caesar or chopped salads.
Image

What a bunch of cuties. All for approximately 50 cents.

Do you guys like adding croutons to salad, or are you strict anti-carb adherents? Have you made your own before, and what did you use to season them? How about the bread?