Presto Chango

I love for things to be fun. Even the simplest things, I’m happy as long as I find a way to make them fun. For instance, putting on really great music, nice and loud, while I clean the house does wonders for me! So playing with flavors and “What if’s” when I’m cooking keeps me from ever getting bored with the weeknight dinner routine.

Take this recipe for a verrrrry simple vegetable “ragu”–a sort of stewed, cooked down mixture of veggies that can be used lots of ways. The basic idea is to dice your veg, in this case yellow onion, orange bell pepper and tomatoes (use “Petite Diced” ones, it’s quick!) and saute them in a little olive oil over a medium-low heat so they cook down and mellow out nicely, for about 20 minutes. Then…use them for an appetizer: a dollop on top of toasted crusty bread spread with cream cheese! Or; make it a meal and toss the mixture with pasta, or serve it as a sauce over some grilled chicken. Get the idea? Be open to what you might use it for and you’ve got lots of new options. But that’s not all….! (just like an infomercial, right?!)

Now, let’s play with flavors and that same easy ragu can go in lots of directions:

–As it’s cooking, sprinkle in some Italian flavors like Basil, Garlic & Oregano (or use my Italian blend from the shop, called Vinnie the Knuckles! http://www.spicetravelerprescott.com )

–Or go Middle Eastern: Add Cinnamon, Smoked Paprika, Curry powder and Mint! Start with a little of each and adjust from there to your taste. In this case, a little cinnamon mixed in the cream cheese for your appetizer would be awesome, then top with mint.

–How about Latin American? Add a touch of Cocoa powder, Cumin and Chili powder, then some fresh Lime zest at the end.

Same three veggies, but…Abracadabra!…it’s something new  :  )

Keep cookin’ and have FUN!

From Wallflower to “Wow!”

After a bit of hiatus–life got in the way!–I’m back. Still cookin’ away and finding inspiration everywhere…

Recently, on a trip back East, I had lunch at this cute little diner in Philadelphia. Hubby had a “Homemade Meatloaf Pressed Sandwich”, which he said was quite good. Little Missy had a grilled cheese. I was all excited to order a salad that just could not have been more up my hippie-leaning alley: Greens & Grains with Roasted Vegetables. My mouth was waiting impatiently for it to arrive.

Well. Let’s just say the concept was awesome, but they just didn’t pull it off well. I’m not usually a ‘returner’, but when the server asked how I was enjoying my salad, I just had to be honest. There was pale iceberg lettuce, beige grains of some kind, mushy over-roasted veggies (I actually couldn’t tell what kind of veggies they used to be!), and it was all tossed together when it arrived, looking very unappetizing. I thought: This idea deserves way better than this.
So when we got back, I gave it a shot. We now have a new star in the lineup at home and I’m happy to say it’s a doozy: good for you and good lookin’, too!  Hope you like it, too:

G  R  E  E  N  S     &      G  R  A  I  N  S
w/   R  O  A  S  T  E  D    V  E  G  E  T  A  B  L  E  S

Start by cooking whatever grains you want to use. You can even cook them the day before. I used lentils and a Trader Joe’s grain mixture that had quinoa, garbanzo beans and cous cous. Anything you like will do: brown rice, wheat berries, whatever, just be sure to cook them according to the package directions and start them ahead so you’re not waiting on them.

Then, preheat the oven to 350° and start cutting up veggies. I was looking for a visual punch so I used red bell peppers, yellow squash, zucchini and mushrooms. Cut them all approx. the same size, around 1″ pieces or slightly larger. Put them on a cookie sheet and season them nicely with olive oil, garlic, salt & pepper. Pop ’em in to roast.
They should only need about 20 minutes–roasted but still a little “al dente”. Too much and you’re back to mushy veggies.

I found it was nice with both the grains and the veggies just warm, not hot, and certainly not refrigerator-cold (if you’ve done them ahead). So while those are cooling down or warming up, depending on what you did, make a quick dressing: 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar (I used balsamic for some sweetness), salt, pepper, garlic and some dried thyme. Whisk it all together. It could be any kind of dressing, but I would keep it light, not a creamy dressing.

Now, you’re done! Fix the plate with a bed of spinach mixed with spring mix–really nice and colorful (and way more nutrition than iceberg lettuce!). Spoon some grains onto the middle. Then spoon some of the veggies across the top. Drizzle a little dressing and there you go!

When you serve it, it’s a feast for your eyes! And–I’m even guilty myself–usually a salad-as-my-dinner doesn’t satisfy me and I’m looking for something more in an hour, but this one is different. The grains do the job and it’s really a wonderful thing :  )  Enjoy!

Sláinte!

(which mean’s “good health to you” or “Cheers!” in Irish)…
and a Happy St. Pat’s to all you fellow Irish souls out there today :  )

Nothin’ else to do but post my family’s Irish Soda Bread recipe. It goes at least as far back as my Dad’s Aunt Annie. She was a character, for sure…!

I  R  I  S  H     S  O  D  A    B  R  E  A  D
4C flour
1t salt
1t baking soda
4T baking powder
1/4C sugar
1C raisins (softened in water & drained)
1 egg, beaten
2C buttermilk
2T Caraway seeds

Preheat the oven to 350°. Prepare two round cake pans by greasing them with butter and a dusting of flour.

In bowl, using a fork, mix together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder and sugar. Combine the Caraway seeds with the raisins you drained and add them to the flour mixture. Add the egg and the buttermilk. Combine it all with a fork until all of the dry ingredients are moistened. Don’t overmix it. Split the dough into the two cake pans, forming a round loaf. (It’s a very sticky dough, so I moisten my hands slightly with water when I do this, it helps it come off and also makes the surface of the bread smoother).

Bake for 40-45 minutes until they’re golden brown. Turn out of the pans immediately to cool.

These are absolutely wonderful sliced with some butter and after a day or so (if there’s any left!), I toast the slices.
The loaves freeze well also.

A New Twist on a Classic

A familiar dish growing up was good ‘ol Stuffed Peppers. It was the 70’s (60’s?) version…green bell peppers, stuffing made from ground beef and white rice, topped with tomato sauce–pretty standard, but mom’s was always pretty tasty.

I don’t know what Hubby’s childhood experience was with them, but I knew it probably wasn’t a favorite, so I decided to give them a “makeover” and reintroduce them as a whole new creation. Gone were the ‘scary’ green peppers (those are his words!) and I tweaked the stuffing to A) be a little more healthful and B) make it  a dish that’s versatile enough to use up all sorts of bits of leftover veggies and such. So, as long as you’ve got some yellow, red or orange peppers (or, honestly, green is just fine if you happen to like them!) you can pull this together almost anytime.

I’ll give you the basic concept, but keep in mind—and this is a good thing–this is really a ‘seat of your pants’ kind of recipe for me. The stuffing can really be anything and any combination. You can keep it all veggie, or you can add very small (1/4″ cubes) of tofu for protein, or make it ground turkey. The trick is adding flavor and keeping it moist. I’ve left the quantities loose because you just need to gauge how much stuffing you’ll make depending on what you’re using, the size of the peppers (why not use those little tiny bells and make this an appetizer??) and how many people you’re feeding.

N  E  W  –  T   O  –   Y  O  U
S  T  U  F  F  E  D     P  E  P  P  E  R  S

First things first–start water boiling to cook some pasta. Any type of small pasta works great, like an orzo, or I used little circles. Get it going and the pasta cooking.

Next, chop very small… fresh garlic, some mushrooms, asparagus etc. The only requirement here is the garlic. Beyond that, use what you like or what you’ve got. Bits of carrot, onion, some of the peppers, spinach, tofu–almost anything, keeping in mind how the flavors might go together. And keep the pieces small so you can stuff your peppers easily.

Sauté all your veggies, etc. in a little olive oil ’til they’re starting to get tender. Season with salt & pepper. Sprinkle about 1 T of flour over the mixture and stir it in. Add 1/2 C of chicken broth (this is for a batch that’ll stuff about 6 pepper halves, adjust accordingly). You’re looking for a moist mixture, not ‘soupy’, but still staying together a little. Drain your pasta well and add it in. Fold in some fresh shaved parmesan–nice little slices about 1/4″ long add little shots of flavor.

While you’re waiting for your veggies to get tender, preheat your oven to 400°‚ then wash and slice your bell peppers in half from the stem down to the bottom (leave the stem on ‘cuz it looks nice, but cut out the seed part inside) As I said, you can use any colors–and actually a combination of a few colors looks great when you serve the whole platter! Drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom of a baking dish and arrange the pepper halves. When your stuffing is ready, fill each little pepper ‘cup’, pressing the stuffing in to fill any spaces and overfilling them so they heap a little. Sprinkle some breadcrumbs over the top (Panko bread crumbs are great if you have them). Cover loosely with foil and bake for 30-40 minutes.

Serve them with a salad on the side, or some fresh, crunchy Italian bread.

Pssst…Pass It On!

OK, so my girl has turned 7 now. She’s been at my side while I’ve cooked ever since she was in her little bouncy chair! The other day, we were working in the kitchen together, as we often do, and it occurred to me just how absolutely wonderful that is! Along the way, while spending time together, watching, learning and tasting (a lot!)…I realized: I have passed it on. What’s “it” you say? It’s a level of comfort in the kitchen, a growing confidence and set of skills that will be with her throughout her life. She’s learned the pleasure of eating fresh, whole food, puttin’ love in the pot as it cooks, and serving it in an appealing way to her loved ones (maybe it’s too much Food Network, but she’s totally got the concept of good presentation already!)

I do not have an exceptional child in this respect. (Of course, I think she’s exceptional in every way : )  But, I was not especially blessed with a child that has some sort of an advanced palate, or an above-average ability in the kitchen. Instead, all I did was get her involved from the very start. I believe enthusiasm is contagious no matter what it is you’re enthusiastic about. In my case, it was making good things in the kitchen. Cooking and family meals have always been a priority in our house. We’ve put special emphasis on traditional dishes that have been handed down. We’ve always noted how great that snack was for our bodies…”it’ll give you energy and help you grow big!”. And how amazing real food is…”can you believe God packed all those good vitamins into that little strawberry?”

My point is, looking back, it wasn’t really very hard to get to this point and I think anyone can do it with their kids. I will admit, it took a lot of patience sometimes (that’s definitely not my strong point!–but it did make me grow in that area in the process). I had to slow down, and it was worth it. Letting her get her hands in the pizza dough, even though I knew flour would end up everywhere, paid off bigtime when she was so excited to eat the pizza (loaded with fresh veggies) that she had made. For kids, who love their little independence–you would be amazed at what they’ll eat if they’ve had a hand in it themselves!

We started very small. Mixing dough, stirring, counting ingredients (“I need five mushrooms now…”). Then it moved on to setting the table, washing veggies, peeling garlic for me. Help in the grocery store as she could reach more and more things. It’s great to have kids read anything you can, ask them: “Can you find the spinach for me?” “How much do the tomatoes cost?”, “Which peanut butter is better for us?” (make sure they know first that peanut butter only needs to be peanuts, maybe a little salt. That’s all!). Now we’re at the point where I’m doing less “teaching” and she’s just become a huge help in the kitchen. She’s understanding the basic concepts of cooking, how you brown something, what’s a ‘simmer’ versus a ‘boil’, etc. She’s progressed from a very small kid-safe knife, which was fun at first, but wasn’t all that useful, to an almost-full-size plastic, kid-safe chef’s knife that’s incredibly useful (look for them online). We split up the chopping for a stir fry last week and it got done so quickly! She’s honing her knife skills and by the time she’s ready for a real, sharp blade, she’ll be awesome.

So, I highly encourage you to get your kids involved in any way you can. It’s never too late–even a teenager will be impressed with himself if he’s made something that’s delicious (don’t forget to tell him that it’s a total ‘chick magnet’, too). You will be having a ball together, instilling a love for fresh, real food (as opposed to fast food, and processed foods which will not serve them well in the long run!) and passing on a skill they’ll have and enjoy forever. Even if you’re just learning to cook, do it together and keep them involved!

Here’s a few ideas to get you going:
• Little ones can count out ingredients, find items for you in the produce section, mix and stir (and taste!). Even the littlest ones can call the family for dinner!
• A little bit older and they can start measuring things out, reading labels, weighing items in the store. Washing fruits & veggies, peeling garlic cloves (once you’ve smashed it with a wide knife), gathering items from the fridge or pantry. Choosing what vegetable to have for dinner. I have M pick herbs from the patio, a lemon off the tree…
• Teach them carefully and with supervision they can help with the chopping, stir things on the stove (a big thrill for my kid), read you the recipe, help plan out meals for the week (or even just one meal, and let them be really involved).
• Pretty soon, you’ll be getting a few nights off cooking a week…that’s my plan!  :  )

Overall, I think we tend to try and just “get dinner done” because we’re so busy, and kids don’t feel they have a place in the kitchen. They’re certainly not needed, and food just magically appears on the table (which leaves you feeling underappreciated!) If you’ll slow it down a bit and allow them some access you’ll be surprised. So get going, remember to be extra-patient…and most of all, HAVE FUN!

Be Good to Your Tastebuds

…and the rest of your body! Most people think (and have been conditioned to think) that really yummy, mmm-mmm good flavor only happens in the presence of cheese, and cream, and a good size vat of frying oil. I couldn’t disagree more!

Although I don’t shy away from a nice creamy sauce or some fish n’ chips now and then, those are definitely not mainstays in my menus. Not because I’m trying to be all “healthy”, but because we just don’t have a raging desire for heavy, fatty cooking methods. When you stop and think about all that’s available, there’s so much more to the flavor story! I believe it’s possible for our tastebuds to fall in love all over again, only this time with delicious, interesting food. It just takes a little experimenting and the willingness to get un-hooked (‘cuz that’s what we are, “hooked”) on that starchy, fatty taste.

Just start to think about all the possible ways to add flavor to a dish and the possibilities are endless:
• Instead of cooking rice in water, use broth. (Also use it to add moisture to any dish you’re cooking instead of plain water)
• Herbs! Dried, and especially fresh herbs, add a burst of bright flavor. Add them to anything you can.
• Spices. This doesn’t mean “spicy” necessarily. If you like spicy, go for it, but it also means sending your dish in any direction you want. Basil, Italian Parsley and Oregano speak Italian. Rosemary, Thyme and Lavender bring you to France. Sage, Marjoram and Parsley are home-y, comforting. Take it further: Cumin & Chili Powder, kind of southwest. Cumin & Allspice, kind of Jamaican. Get the idea? Imagine that grilled chicken breast now, and all the different things you can do with it.
• Fresh lemon juice, lime juice. Pineapple juice!
• Which brings me to fruit: cut a longwise slice into a pork roast and stuff it with peaches. Drizzle a little olive oil, salt & pepper and see what you get! Figs, orange sections (think orange honey roasted chicken), apples, dried cranberries, plum preserves…
• Nuts! Crush some pecans, mix with a little mustard and fresh herbs. Spread it on some salmon and throw it in the oven. Or, slightly toast some sesame seeds and sprinkle them over your stir fry for a nutty crunch.
• And don’t forget…garlic!

Are you getting my drift? For instance, once I had a couple of turkey sausages in the fridge needing to be cooked up. I had used a couple of them a day or two before for an Italian Mac n’ Cheese (search for that one on here, it’s good!). I didn’t want to go with italian flavors again, so I started thinking elsewhere. I ended up with “Loooosiana Rice n’ Beans”, and used spices like cumin, saffron, cayenne pepper and smoked paprika.
I simmered it with tomatoes and beans, cooked up some collard greens and served it all over brown rice. We put on the swamp-kickin’ country tunes and totally enjoyed our little time in the south!

If you’re like me, I tend to get easily bored as a cook and as a “customer”, so by simply switching up my flavors I’m more than happy! Give some flavor a try. Not only will your tastebuds thank you, your heart will too in the long run!

My Own Little Italy

When presented with a nice, easy weekend, low on plans & commitments, call me crazy (and you will), but what came to my mind was: “Oooh! I can make homemade pasta!” Now, I realize that sounds like something only a food-obsessed person like me would do, but if you were ever to give it a try you’d: A) have a blast making it (it’s very easy and so cool to think you did it yourself!) and B) have the privilege of tasting the difference between the boxed stuff and homemade. It’s fresher and lighter and mmmm….Take note: I am not saying there’s a thing wrong with store bought pasta, I use it all the time. But… for the sake of adventure, enjoying the homemade version is really a treat.

It’s very simple. It’s really just a balance of flour and liquid, that liquid being made up of eggs, water, or a combination of both. Of course, there are probably a hundred variations on the basic recipe. Some people will insist on using only semolina flour, or, you might want to get healthy and use whole wheat flour. But, all I can say is, my Grandma Mary, who made her own pasta week in and week out, used regular all-purpose flour. You can get fancy and add pureed spinach, tomato paste or herbs to your dough if you want. You can let it rise awhile, or roll it right out and use it… there are lots of opinions on the perfect pasta. But all you’ll really need are those basic ingredients, a mixing bowl and a rolling pin! I’d suggest you do a search for basic pasta recipes and go from there. Or; Jamie Oliver (aka, the Naked Chef) has great, simple directions for this in most of his cookbooks. He made it seem so simple (and fun!) that I was inspired (and not afraid!) to try it…

Once you’ve made your pasta, you can use it right away (fresh) or leave it out in the air to dry completely (it’ll be good for a few months). I would suggest making a few batches more than you need for that night (since you’re making the mess anyway) and dry some for another time.

Now… since I had FRESH pasta happening, I really wanted a FRESH tasting tomato sauce. Usually I’m a big fan of a big pot of “gravy”–that’s ‘tomato sauce’ in Italian ;  ) simmering all day on the stove. But this called for a light, fresh taste. So I made my version of a Puttanesca sauce from some fresh tomatoes, capers and olives. A true Puttanesca is very spicy (google the meaning of Pasta Puttanesca and you’ll see why!). Mine is not, but you can always add more chili pepper if you want. It took all of half an hour, and, considering the pasta cooked in about 5 minutes, it was quick, very healthy, and tasted awesome. Of course, you can make this sauce anytime, with any kind of pasta you might have on hand, and I hope you do! Mangia!

L  I  G  H  T     P  U  T  T  A  N  E  S  C  A     S  A  U  C  E
At least 4 cloves of chopped garlic
10-12 Fresh tomatoes (Roma, or the freshest, reddest tomatoes you can find, coarsely cut into chunks–don’t fuss!)
Crushed Red Pepper (to taste)
1 Cup of fairly dry white wine
3 T Capers (find them in the store near the olives, roasted red peppers, etc.)
1/2 C Kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
1-1/2 Slices of fresh lemon
Fresh Basil

On the stovetop, in a large saute pan on medium heat, glug (very official term!)  about 3-4 T of Olive Oil in and saute your garlic. Then, add your tomatoes. Saute for about a minute, then add the wine, salt, pepper, red pepper, capers and olives. Mix it all up and then lay the lemon slices on the top of the mixture around the pan. Turn the heat to low and let this simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and pushing down on the tomatoes with your spoon to break them up. At the very end, chop up some fresh basil–about 5 large leaves, and add it in.

That’s it! Serve it over your pasta and YUM!

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