Thursday, March 31, 2011

Penne with Vodka Sauce

I can't remember if I've ever had vodka sauce at a restaurant, but I know for sure that I've never made it at home until now. I don't know what me took so long - it calls for half-n-half and vodka, two things I almost always have on hand. The recipe I found online is by Giada De Laurentiis and it's very simple. You start with marinara sauce, add vodka, and simmer until most of the alcohol cooks out. Then you stir in some half-n-half and Parmesan, toss with cooked penne, and you're done!

She suggests a recipe for homemade marinara sauce that you can use, but also says you can use jarred sauce instead. I love homemade pasta sauce, but both times I have made this dish I was looking for something quick and easy, without a lot of fuss. So jarred sauce it was.

From experience, I can tell you that when she says to blend the sauce before simmering, she's not just saying it to fill space in the recipe directions. Simmering pasta sauce has got to be one of the most spattery things you can do in a kitchen, and chunky sauce makes it so much worse. The first time I made this, I thought the sauce I was using looked fairly smooth already, so I didn't bother to blend it. The result? I had little burns all over my arms and a horrible mess on the stovetop and kitchen floor. The second time, I went over the sauce a few times with my immersion blender and had a much less eventful simmering period. There was a little mess, one or two minor spatter burns, but it paled in comparison to the bloodbath that was the first time. Bottom line, blend your sauce, whether you use jarred or homemade.

Of course, the actual recipe calls for heavy cream. Not too much, just half a cup, spread out over about six servings. But I almost always swap out heavy cream for half-n-half in these kinds of situations, if I think it won't make a noticeable difference in taste or texture. Just for the record, I'm not talking about the oxymoron dairy product that is called "fat-free half-n-half". That's just nonfat milk that's been thickened with additives. Weird, no thanks.

Penne with Vodka Sauce
adapted from The Food Network - Giada De Laurentiis
Serves 6

1 quart (32 ounces) homemade or jarred marinara sauce, blended until smooth
1 cup vodka
1/2 cup half-n-half or heavy cream
1/2 cup grated Parmesan, plus more for topping individual servings
1 pound penne

Measure out the half-n-half or cream and set it aside on the counter while you cook the meal, so it warms up to room temperature.

Combine the marinara sauce and vodka in a large heavy skillet. Simmer gently over low heat for about 20-25 minutes. Partially cover with a lid or cover with a splatter screen if desired. The sauce should reduce by about 1/4, but that's a hard thing to measure, so I tasted it occasionally to decide when it was done. When it no longer tastes like you're just sipping straight vodka, i.e., it tastes like delicious marinara, it's done. Stir in the half-n-half or cream, and keep simmering over low heat for a few minutes, just until it's heated through. Add the Parmesan and stir until melted and well blended.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling, salted water until al dente, about 8 minutes. It should be tender yet still firm when you bite into it. Drain and add to the pot of sauce, stirring gently to combine.

Serve with extra Parmesan for topping your individual bowls.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sesame-Soy Meatballs

We loved these little meatballs. They were a little sweet, a little garlicky, slightly spicy, and were very easy to make. We made a double batch so we'd have plenty for lunches during the week. You can serve them with rice, or nestle them into lettuce leaves or flatbread. We decided to serve them over a bed of rice noodles tossed with red curry paste - a sort of Asian twist on spaghetti and meatballs.

Sesame Soy Meatballs
adapted from Cooking Light - November 2010
serves 4 (5 meatballs per serving)

Notes: The original recipe suggests serving with steamed snap peas and two cups cooked rice tossed with 1 tablespoon of chile paste. This method works for rice noodles as well. I've read that rice noodles don't make very good leftovers though, so I only cooked what I would use that night, about 1 ounce of dry noodles per person. I soaked the noodles for 30 minutes in hot water, drained, then tossed with about 2 teaspoons dark sesame oil and 2 teaspoons of red curry paste (or more to taste, and it helps to mix the paste with a little water or oil first). Right before we were ready to eat I stir-fried the noodles in a dry skillet, just to warm them up and toast the curry paste a bit.

1/3 cup minced green onions
2 tablespoons brown sugar
3 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon chile paste (red curry paste works too)
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 pound ground sirloin
Cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

In a large bowl, combine the green onions, brown sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, chile paste, salt, and garlic. Add the beef and gently mix together until all ingredients are evenly distributed. With moist hands, shape the mixture into 20 (1 1/2-inch) meatballs. To make sure I made the correct number, I divided the mixture into quarters, and made 5 meatballs out of each quarter.

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add about half the meatballs to the pan and cook for about 4 minutes, turning them occasionally to brown on all sides. Transfer to a  jelly-roll pan coated with cooking spray, spreading them out into a single layer. Repeat with procedure with the remaining meatballs. Once all the meatballs are browned and arranged on the jelly-roll pan, bake at 400 F for about 7 minutes. We baked them until a randomly sampled meatball reached an internal temperature of 160 F, so ours had to stay in the oven a few minutes longer.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ma Po Tofu

This is Cooking Light's version of a fiery hot Chinese dish made with tofu and a little ground beef.

This was the perfect meal to make on the night that I workout in the evening, because I was able to prep everything before I left, including starting the rice cooker and getting the tofu under a heavy skillet to start pressing out the water. Then when I returned, dinner came together in minutes. Well, more than a few minutes, but you get my point. In no time at all I was in my pjs, curled up on the couch with my plate and a glass of wine, watching Arrested Development. That's right folks, that right there was a glimpse into my wild and crazy life.

Ma Po Tofu
adapted from Cooking Light - April 2010
serves 4 (1/2 cup rice, 3/4 cup tofu mixture per serving)

Notes: I pressed my tofu for 1 hour rather than 30 minutes because it worked out better for me time-wise, and it seemed to make no difference. Also, I had some shredded carrots that I wanted to use up, so I added a handful of those along with the garlic and ginger. Ground pork or turkey could also be used instead of ground beef.

1 (14 ounce) package firm water-packed tofu, drained
1-2 tablespoons Sriracha (hot chile sauce, such as Huy Fong), depending on how hot you want it
1 1/2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
1 tablespoon black bean garlic sauce (Sun Luck is the brand we used this time, but we've also used Lee Kum Kee)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons soy sauce (regular or less-sodium)
1 tablespoon chili oil
1 tablespoon canola oil
4 ounces ground sirloin
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
2 teaspoons peeled and grated fresh ginger
Handful shredded carrots (optional)
2 cups hot cooked long-grain white rice
1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves

Place the tofu onto a plate lined with paper towels. Cover the tofu with a couple more paper towels, then put a heavy skillet right on top of the tofu and let stand for 30 minutes. Discard towels and chop tofu into 1-inch cubes.

In a small bowl, combine the Sriracha, mirin, black bean sauce, and sugar.

In another bowl (or a measuring cup) combine the broth, corn starch, soy sauce, and chili oil. Stir until smooth.

In a large nonstick skillet, add the canola oil and heat over medium-high heat. When hot, add the ground beef and stir-fry for about 3 minutes, breaking it up with a wooden spoon. Add the garlic and ginger (and shredded carrots, if using), stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Add the Sriracha mixture and cook for another minute, stirring occasionally. Add the broth mixture and bring to a boil. After about 1 minute, add the tofu and stir to combine. Allow the tofu to heat through for a minute or two.

Serve with rice and sprinkle the cilantro leaves over the top. We added some steamed broccoli alongside.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Blueberry Lemon Pound Cake and a Wine Cork Wreath

My favorite co-worker and friend Donna had a birthday last week, and at my lab, no birthday goes uncelebrated. We usually bring in treats and gather in the office for an extra long coffee-break. I was inspired by a recent guest post on Chef Dennis's blog from Liv Life. She made a beautiful blueberry lemon pound cake adapted from a Cooking Light recipe, so I decided to make it for the party.

It came out perfect, everyone loved it! I did have to go out and buy a bundt pan at the last minute. I thought I already had one, but all I could find was an angel food cake pan, and I really just HAD to have those pretty rounded edges. It just wouldn't be as special without them.

Unlike my typical blog posts, I'm not going to try to reproduce her recipe. She took such beautiful photos that you just need to go visit her post yourself.

I compared her version of the recipe with the original Cooking Light recipe from 1998, and I think she made some changes for the better. She nixed the light butter for regular, whole eggs instead of a combination of whole and whites only, and she added some lemon juice and zest to the batter, which gives it an extra kick of lemon goodness. Licking the remaining batter in the bowl has always been the highlight of any baking experience for me, and I really enjoyed the taste of this batter :-)

The only thing I might change if I made this again is double the recipe for the glaze. It was so good - I just wanted more!

Since wine goes hand in hand with food and cooking, I feel that it's relevant to share a recent craft project I made with wine corks. I'd been saving the corks for about six months (with help from a few friends who also drink their fair share of wine!). They had grown into quite the collection and I finally got around to one of the projects I wanted to make with them.  This is the wine cork wreath I made for Donna for her birthday:

It was very easy to make. I bought a brown twig wreath and a long strand of artificial grape leaves. The grapes that came on the strand looked very old and shriveled, so I cut those off and bought some better-looking plastic grapes to attach myself with green zip-ties. After winding the leaves around the twig wreath, I simply glued the corks on with a hot glue gun. I liked the corks that were stained with red wine because they added little bursts of color. It looks good against Donna's red/burgundy front door.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Southeast Asian Fried Rice

I love turning fried rice into a full meal! By adding lots of filling veggies, you can take a small amount of rice and a small amount of chicken and turn it into something very healthy and satisfying.

I have already posted recipes for fried rice, a "clean out the fridge" version and a tempeh version, both stemming from Mark Bittman's recipe. This time, I came across a Cooking Light version that I wanted to try. Instead of pork, they call for just two strips of bacon, which gives you a lot of bang for your buck in terms of flavor. It also calls for fish sauce and chili paste, two more efficient ways to add flavor.

By the way, I'm really loving Cooking Light right now. I have subscribed to them for years, but sometimes their recipes were very bland, and they relied on things I didn't buy, like light butter and condensed soups. This past year though, I feel like they have made some major transformations. First of all, I love the photography now. Second, their recipes revolve around whole foods and fresh, natural ingredients. They even have recipes from Mark Bittman, calling for "less meat, more flavor". If you had cast them aside a few years ago, it might be worth checking them out again.

Southeast Asian Fried Rice
adapted from Cooking Light - January 2010
serves 4

Notes: We didn't have fresh ground chile paste, but we did have a huge tub of red curry paste, which I figured would achieve basically the same effect (it tasted great to us!). For the chicken, instead of the exact amounts of white and dark meat that the recipe called for, I just had a wing and a breast, so I used that (we were working our way through a whole chicken and that's what we ended up having available for this meal).

Also, rather than cooking and crumbling the bacon separately like the recipe says, I cooked the bacon in the pan I planned to cook the rice in and used the bacon grease in place of some of the oil. If you happen to already have cooked bacon (leftover from breakfast, perhaps), use two teaspoons of oil in the first step (where you add the rice) instead of just one.

Feel free to get creative with the vegetable additions; chopped tomato, green beans, carrots, and bean sprouts would all be good here. I added a handful of shredded carrots along with the broccoli and red pepper because I had a big bag of them on hand.

1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce (lower sodium or regular)
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste), divided (we didn't have that, so we used red curry paste)
1/4 teaspoon salt, divided
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 small bunch green onions
 2 tablespoons peanut oil, divided (we were out, so we used grapeseed oil)
2 bacon slices (cooked and crumbled, or not, see note above)
2 1/2 cups cooked and cooled brown rice
1/4 cup vertically sliced shallots
2 (4 ounce) skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 (6 ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups broccoli florets
1 cup julienne-cut red bell pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
Cooking spray
4 lime wedges

In a small bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice, 1/2 teaspoon chile (or curry) paste, and 1/8 teaspoon salt.

In another small bowl, whisk together the eggs and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon chile (or curry) paste.

For the green onions, slice off the green tops, thinly slice diagonally, and set aside. Take the thicker, lighter green parts of the onion and chop into 1-inch pieces, set aside. Discard the very bottoms.

Lay the uncooked strips of bacon in a large nonstick skillet. Turn the heat to medium-high. Cook the bacon, turning every so often, until crisp. Remove the strips and drain on a paper towel. When cool enough to handle, crumble into small pieces. Try not to eat too many.

Check the volume of bacon grease in the skillet. Add peanut oil as needed until you have about 2 teaspoons of grease/oil total. If you are starting with precooked bacon, just add 2 teaspoons to a large nonstick skillet and heat over medium high.

When the oil is hot, swirl to coat the pan, then add the rice. Stir-fry for about 1 or 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Transfer rice to a large bowl. Add two more teaspoons of oil to pan. Add shallots, stir-fry for about 30 seconds, until tender. Add the chicken and cook until lightly browned, about 1 1/2 minutes. Add the brown sugar mixture to the pan and bring to a boil. This will cook the inside of the chicken pieces. Reduce heat and simmer for about a minute, stirring occasionally. After the liquid has thickened slightly, transfer the contents of the pan to the bowl with the rice.

Wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel, and return to medium-high heat. Add 2 more teaspoons of oil and swirl to coat. Add the broccoli and bell pepper, stir fry until the vegetables are tender, about 3 minutes. Add the remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt, the 1-inch green onion pieces, and the garlic. Stir fry for just another minute or so, until fragrant. Return the chicken/rice mixture back to pan and stir to combine, cooking for a couple of minutes, until the mixture is thoroughly heated. Put the whole thing back into the bowl again.

Return the skillet to medium-high heat and coat with cooking spray.  Add the egg mixture to the pan and stir gently to scramble. As the egg cooks, break it up into small pieces. Add to the large bowl, along with the bacon, and gently mix everything together.

To serve, scoop about 1 1/2 cups of the rice mixture into each bowl. Top with the thinly sliced green onion tops and garnish with a lime wedge. We needed to add a bit more salt to our portions.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Yumm! Tuna Salad

Ah, my new favorite pastime: finding ways to incorporate Yumm! Sauce into everything I eat. This time, I used it instead of mayo in tuna salad. It was delicious, and made a great lunch to take to work!

I'm not a big fan of mayo. I only use it sparingly in recipes if I absolutely have to. I have never been one to spread it on sandwiches or burgers; it's one of those "picky eater" habits I still cling to as an adult. 

I am pretty sure I've always disliked the stuff, but I can say for sure that one experience I had as a kid sealed the deal. My sister and I were in elementary school at the time, and my mom was working there as a staff assistant. Some days after school we had to wait around for her while she was still working, so we'd hang out in the staff break room. One day, we were sent to wait there as usual, and saw a huge spread of food set out that was leftover from a lunch potluck earlier that day. My mom said we could help ourselves. So I grabbed a roll, spread on a large amount of butter - what I thought was butter - and took a bite. 

I could tell something was up with that butter. It did not taste right. I had to take a few bites to figure it out, but we finally realized what had happened: the mayo had turned yellow from sitting out all day, so it looked like butter. ::gags::

And that's why I don't like mayonnaise. That's also why you should never let perishable food sit out for more than two hours.

Remind me to tell you about the time my best friend got me to try tarter sauce - and how she conveniently "forgot" to tell me until afterwards that it's basically composed of mayo and pickles! Ok, that's pretty much the whole story right there. She's still my best friend, but I do not eat tarter sauce...

Anyway, now that I've (hopefully!) ruined your taste for mayonnaise, here is my recipe for Tuna Salad - sans Mayo!

Yumm! Tuna Salad
inspired by Cafe Yumm
makes about 6 servings

2-(6 ounce) cans tuna, packed in water
1/2 cup Yumm! sauce, original flavor
1-2 tablespoons minced red onion
1 tablespoon minced celery (optional)
1-2 tablespoons minced cilantro
1/2 tablespoon lime juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Drain tuna. Put tuna into a medium bowl, flaking it apart with a fork. Add remaining ingredients, stir to combine. 

Taste and adjust the flavor as needed by adding more of any of the ingredients as you see fit. I'm pretty sure I added more Yumm! sauce because I wanted a creamier tuna salad.

This will last for a several days in the fridge. It makes a great lunch as a sandwich or as a spread on crackers or crispbread. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Poached Chicken with Vegetables

The scale has been frustrating me lately. Well, it's not really the scale's fault. Can I instead blame the Girl Scouts and their addictive, fattening cookies? Sigh. No, blaming 8-year-old girls for my weight seems just as unfair as blaming it on an inanimate object. This frustration is stemming from the fact that I was over my weight limit at my last WW meeting and they had to waive that weigh-in. I think I only get one waive per year. And it's only March!

I decided to get proactive, so that next month's meeting will be better. I signed up for E-tools, their online food tracking website. It costs money, which sucks, but I've been using it to record everything I've eaten for a whole week straight now, which is my longest streak in, oh, 6 MONTHS.

If you're not familiar with, or don't care about Weight Watchers, that's ok, because here is the other way I decided to get proactive: Poached chicken and vegetables. No oil, no butter, just a sensible portion of white meat chicken and tons of veggies. Yes, I think I'm on the right track with this one.

There should have been some oil in this recipe, drizzled on at the very end, but we totally forgot to add it. Since we didn't even miss it, I'm leaving it out of my adaptation of the recipe. I also used less chicken than it called for, since there is just the two of us, and I didn't have that much chicken anyway. I ended up using one 9-ounce chicken breast split between us. We saved the leftover broth and vegetables for lunches this week.

We only had lemon thyme instead of regular, so we used that. Then we decided, on a whim, to throw in some kaffir lime leaves with the broth, just to continue with the new citrus theme we had started. It was subtle, but we could definitely notice it!

We also roasted a delicata squash with a tiny pat of butter and a sprinkle of brown sugar to go with this meal. All things in moderation, right?

Poached Chicken and Vegetables
adapted from Real Simple
serves 4

2 leeks (white and light green parts) thinly sliced
3/4 pound Yukon gold potatoes (that's about 1 medium and 1 small), sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 medium fennel bulb, thinly sliced
4 sprigs fresh thyme (or lemon thyme)
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (homemade, if you have it)
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or less, if you're trying to stretch a buck)
1 bunch Swiss chard or kale, stems removed and leaves roughly chopped or torn.

Put the leeks, potatoes, fennel, thyme, broth, vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper into a large pot and bring to a boil.

Once it's boiling, reduce the heat to medium-low and let simmer for about 5 minutes.

Add the chicken to the pot, and simmer for another 7 minutes.

Add the chard or kale and cook for another 3 minutes, or until the greens are tender and have wilted down, and the chicken is cooked through. Taste the broth and season with more salt and pepper as needed.

Remove the chicken from the pot and transfer to a cutting board. Slice the chicken into about 1-inch thick pieces.

Divide the chicken among individual bowls. Ladle the vegetables and broth over the chicken, and serve.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stuffed Bell Peppers with Rice and Ground Beef

These stuffed bell peppers were made with the batch of peppers that I froze back in October. Turns out, frozen bell peppers make excellent stuffed peppers, in case you were wondering.

I had read that you could bake them from frozen, but mine had some ice crystals that I wanted to remove, so I rinsed them under tepid water until they were pretty much thawed and all the ice came off. Before I added the filling I made sure I had dried them off really well with paper towels.

Are you wondering why my peppers had ice crystals on them? Well, funny story. I was rearranging some appliances in the kitchen, which required the unplugging and rearranging of cords. Turns out, I forgot to plug the chest freezer back in! I didn't notice until two days later when I opened it up to take out some ground beef. Luckily, the three tightly packed boxes of beef were still frozen solid. The peppers were near the top and sitting in a basket by themselves so they had thawed a bit. I'm so glad I opened it when I did; what a huge loss that would have been if the beef had gone bad! It made me jealous of the freezers in my lab; they have an alarm that sounds if the temperature gets too high.

Anyway, there are lots of different recipes for stuffed bell peppers. We liked this one a lot. About a year ago I made a vegetarian version that was really good as well. They are nice because you basically just assemble and bake. We made the full recipe for the filling, but we actually only had two bell peppers left in the freezer, so we baked the extra filling in a couple of small oval baking dishes on the same tray with the peppers. It made awesome burrito filling for other meals later in the week!

Stuffed Bell Peppers with Rice and Ground Beef
adapted from Cooking Light - August 2006
serves 4 (2 pepper halves per person)

Notes: The recipe calls for 1/3 pound ground turkey and 2/3 pound ground sirloin. I didn't want to buy a package of ground turkey just to use 1/3 of it, so I just used all ground sirloin. You could use all ground turkey instead too if you wanted (or get wild and crazy and try ground buffalo!).

4 large green bell peppers (or any color)
Cooking spray
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced (remove seeds if you don't want it very spicy)
1/2 cup uncooked long-grain rice (such as jasmine)
1 cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth (we just used homemade, which I'm guessing is not fat-free)
2 cups tomato sauce, divided
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated fresh Parmesan cheese, divided
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 large egg, lightly beaten
1 pound ground meat, such as sirloin, turkey, buffalo, or a combination

Preheat the oven to 400 F.

Wash peppers and pat dry. Cut in half length-wise, discard seeds and white membranes. Try to leave the stems intact if possible (it makes a nice presentation, but other than that I don't think it matters). Place the peppers on a foil-lined jelly-roll pan, cut side up.

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat.  Coat pan with cooking spray. Add the onion, garlic, and jalapeno to the pan. Cook, stirring often, for about five minutes, or until the onion is lightly browned. Add the rice and cook for another two minutes, continuing to stir frequently. Next, add the broth and bring to a boil. Cover the pan, reduce the heat, and let the mixture simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. It's frustrating to have to wait, but if you add it to the rest of the ingredients when it's still hot you might scramble the egg, and that's not what you want.

In a large bowl, add 1 cup of the tomato sauce, 1/4 cup of the cheese, the black pepper, the egg, and the meat. When the rice mixture is cool enough, add it to the bowl, and gently stir the mixture together with a spatula until well blended. Spoon about 1/2 cup of this filling into each of the pepper halves. Pour the remaining 1 cup of tomato sauce evenly over the peppers.

Cover the pan and bake for 45 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup of cheese, then bake uncovered for another 3 minutes or so until the cheese melts.
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