Inspiration

Squash Blossoms

The weekly meal rotation: recipes that can be made entirely from pantry ingredients, meals that come together in less than an hour, dishes that sound good no matter what you’re in the mood for, recipes you know by heart and can shop for without a list and can prepare without the directions.

My mom’s standards included cheesy ham and potato casserole, taco salad, tuna-noodle casserole, spaghetti, hamburger-green bean casserole, porcupine meatballs, and roast. When we walked in the door after school, threw our backpacks on the ground, and went into the kitchen for an afternoon snack, our first question was always, “What’s for dinner?” Whatever Mom said, we responded, “Again?!”

While I pride myself on trying new things, I’m a victim of routine. Maybe I’m not repeating recipes, but I’m following the same formulas: fish with sautéed vegetables and a grain, stir fried vegetables with rice, pasta with some kind of pesto and vegetables… It doesn’t matter that it’s pistachio-mint pesto one week and walnut-arugula pesto the next, it’s still the same thing.

Today I’m feeling inspired. A trip to the farmer’s market yielded these squash blossoms, which I’ll stuff, bread, and fry as a fancy treat before a comfort-food meal. (Further inspiration for our Sunday dinner came from this month’s cover of Saveur and its featured Kansas City restaurant, Rye.)

Provencal Chicken and Tomato Roast

We lived for two months in our new house without a functional oven. We coped well, adapting several recipes for the stovetop, slow cooker, or grill. Now that we have a new oven, it’s almost more difficult to prepare dinner. We’re asking ourselves not only what should we make for dinner, but also how should we make it?

Should the local, all natural, free-range chicken I just picked up at Hen House be braised, sautéed, stir fried, baked, or roasted? After living without an oven, naturally I would choose a technique that I hadn’t employed in months. But what is the difference between baking and roasting?

Most people who cook intuitively know the answer to this question, but have difficulty putting it into words. I know that baked potatoes and roasted potatoes are very different, but what distinguishes them? According to The New Food Lover’s Companion (which I fondly refer to as the “Google Book”), “The primary differentce between baking and roasting is that the latter is typically done at higher heats, requires fat and isn’t covered.”

The Companion goes on to say that roasting is “a method that ideally produces a well-browned exterior and a moist interior.” After reading that, the choice for my Good Natured Family Farms chicken was clear. The most memorable roasted chicken recipe in my binder (from Gourmet, of course) is for separated legs roasted with a combination of sweet, fresh tomatoes, and salty, sun-dried tomatoes. The vegetables in this recipe are outstanding and, I imagine, could be roasted without the chicken.

Provencal Chicken and Tomato Roast 
Serves 2
2 chicken legs, separated into thighs and drumsticks
3 Tbs olive oil, divided
2 plum tomatoes, quartered
2 celery ribs, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 red potatoes, cut into ¼-inch half moons
¾ cup halved cherry tomatoes
2 pieces sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, cut into slivers
10 Kalamata olives, pitted and whole
¼ cup water

Place a large, 4-sided, metal sheet pan in the oven and pre-heat to 475.

Toss chicken with 1 Tablespoon olive oil, salt, and pepper. Toss plum tomatoes, celery, and potatoes with 2 Tablespoons olive oil, salt, and pepper. Place the chicken, skin side down, on one half of the sheet pan. Place the oiled vegetables on the other half of the pan. Roast for 20 minutes.

Turn the chicken and roast 15 minutes more.

Scatter the cherry tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives over the vegetables. Drizzle with ¼ cup of water. Roast 10-15 minutes more, or until chicken is done.

A Good Salad Is Hard to Find

A salad seems like a simple thing to throw together, and it can be. When it comes to side salads, less is more: green leaf with parmesan, romaine with tomato, spinach with red onion and apple. I usually don’t bother emulsifying a dressing, but just drizzle the greens with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or a dash of balsamic vinaigrette. However, when you’re craving an entree salad of chain-restaurant proportions, you need a little more oomph.

I have to admit a level of excitement when I am invited to lunch to The Cheesecake Factory or California Pizza Kitchen or even Applebee’s. I know that there’s a southwestern-style salad waiting for me, complete with tortilla strips, chipotle ranch, pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream. One of these days, I will tackle that beast, but for now the guilt has been taken out of that particular pleasure by a favorite local restaurant, The Mixx.

Even though I can enjoy an oversized salad drenched in rich, creamy dressing while supporting local business, I still feel a little defeated ordering a no-cook item in a restaurant, so the tempting pretzel-bun sandwich with a side of sweet potato fries usually wins out. Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to start making these more-is-more salads at home.

One of the magazine’s I subscribe to has a spread in each issue that is a formula for variations on a simple dish. For instance a spread on macaroni and cheese would lead you to choose the shape of your pasta, two different cheeses, a few vegetables and/or meats to stir in, etc. I call it the choose your own adventure recipe. Hopefully this post will serve as a similar guide to your entree salad adventures.

Vinaigrette 
2 parts olive oil
1 part lemon juice or vinegar
mix-ins (in no particular order): mustard, shallot, capers, olives, sesame oil, bacon fat, honey, serano or jalapeno pepper

Whisk together. I usually use a 2-cup liquid measure and a fork. Otherwise, you can use a salad dressing shaker, which works okay.

Salad
Entree for 2
Sweet fruit: red apples, oranges, peaches, grapes, cherries, avocado, tomato
Mild vegetable: cucumber, carrot, red pepper, summer squash
Tart fruit: green apples, dried cranberries, grapefruit
Zesty vegetable: onion, shallot, radish, green pepper
Cheese: Try blue cheese or goat cheese if you use a lot of fruit, try parmesan or cheddar if you use more vegetables
Protein: beans, hard-boiled egg, ham, turkey
Crunch: toasted nuts, croutons, bacon
1 cup torn mild greens: green leaf, red leaf, romaine
1 cup torn bold greens: spinach, arugula, frisee

Wash and dry greens, preferably in a salad spinner.

Slice or chop all fruits and vegetables in a similar manner. Choose paper-thin slices, ¼-inch dices, or wedges.

Crumble, grate, or shave cheese. Try a vegetable peeler to make ribbons of parmesan.

Combine in an enormous bowl.

Toss with dressing and serve (these are my favorite salad servers).

A Cheesy Comeback

Just because I haven’t posted for more than a year doesn’t mean I haven’t been cooking. On the contrary, Glenn and I have used almost every new appliance, tool, and dish that has been added to our kitchen since our wedding. You may find a new immersion blender, jelly roll pan, and set of dishes in our cabinets, but the same old food processor is stashed away in there, too.

Not only have I not been writing blog posts, I haven’t been reading them either. Most of my inspiration comes from the magazines that Glenn’s grandma subscribes me to. I’ve cooked almost every recipe that’s been printed in Fine Cooking for the last 12 months, but I think this soup is the first recipe I’ve made from Southern Living since I began receiving it two years ago.

This Southwestern Cheesy Potato Soup isn’t really my style—it uses frozen potatoes—but I tested it out at a family Christmas gathering and it turned out to be a real crowd-pleaser. I was typing up the recipe to email my to my aunts and cousins when I realized, I already have a forum for that!  May this post be the first of many in a new year!

Southwestern Cheesy Potato Soup
1 cup diced red bell pepper
1 cup diced onion
3 poblano peppers, seeded and diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ package frozen Potatoes O’Brien
¼ tsp. cumin
4 Tbsp. butter
4 Tbsp. flour
2½ cups milk
28 oz. broth
1 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

In a skillet, saute red pepper, onion, poblanos, and garlic in oil until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Add the frozen potatoes and saute until lightly browned, about 5 minutes more. Stir in cumin. Set aside.

In a large pot, melt the butter. Add the flour and stir with a fork or whisk to break up clumps. Cook until lightly browned, about a minute. Add the milk and cook over low heat until thick like gravy.

Add the broth then stir in the cheeses. Mix in the sauted vegetables. Cook until warm.

Gnocchi

The list of foods that we are afraid to make from scratch is long: gravy, risotto, bread, polenta, gnocchi… Something about the transformation that occurs during the cooking process intimidates us. We worry that the gravy won’t thicken, that the risotto won’t be tender, the bread will be flat, the polenta gritty, and the gnocchi will stick to the bottom of the pot in one large blob. However, if you have a good recipe from a reliable source and if you follow it to a T, you will achieve consistently positive results.

So when Glenn and I decided to make gnocchi for the first time, I consulted the usual suspects for a recipe: Mark Bittman, Joy of Cooking, and Gourmet. The proportions and technique were pretty consistent across the board, but one recipe stood out. This recipe from Gourmet recommended baking the potatoes rather than boiling them to control the moisture content. That sounded pretty logical to me and the recipe came with an instructional video, so I was sold.

Believe it or not, it was easy and fun to make the gnocchi. After baking the potatoes, it only took about 15 minutes to mix, roll, and cut the dough. I was still worried when it came time to boil the dumplings, but I didn’t let my stress interfere with my techniques and the gnocchi came out of the water tender and whole.

Glenn and I served our gnocchi in a beef ragu scented with cinnamon and coriander. It made for a great winter meal, but I can’t wait to try the gnocchi in a lighter sauce come spring.

Gnocchi
Follow this recipe for The Best Gnocchi from Gourmet. The name says it all.

Beef Ragu Scented with Cinnamon and Coriander
Serves 4
1 14oz.-can diced tomatoes
2 oz. pancetta, chopped
½ an onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 bay leaf
½ cinnamon stick
¼ tsp. ground corriander
¼ tsp. ground cloves
½ lb. ground beef
¼ cup red wine
1 Tb. tomato paste

Melt 2 Tbs. butter and 2 Tbs. olive oil in a large pan. Saute the pancetta until golden. Add the onion, carrot, celery, bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and cloves. Saute until vegetables are tender. Add the beef and saute until just cooked. Stir in the wine and bring to a simmer. Add the tomato paste and tomatoes with juices. Simmer 1½ hours.

Creamy White Bean Chili

If I were the kind of person who threw Super Bowl parties or, you know, owned a TV on which to watch the Super Bowl, I would make this chili. Maybe it wouldn’t be great on a chili-cheese dog or in Frito pie, but it’s hearty and spicy and rich.

In this recipe, the half of the beans and vegetables are pureed after cooking, giving the chili a bisque-like quality. The white beans, cream, and herbs offer richness, which is balanced by the zesty spiciness of the sausage. On second thought, maybe this would make an excellent alternative chili-cheese dog with a jalapeno-chicken sausage and Monterrey-Jack cheese.

Creamy White Bean Chili
Serves 6-8

To prepare the beans:
1 pound dried white beans
8 cups water
1 garlic clove, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh rosemary

To quick-soak the beans, place the dry beans in a large pot. Add enough water to cover the beans by 1 inch. Bring to a boil, turn off heat, cover, and let stand for one hour. Drain.

Return the drained beans to the pot and add 8 cups of water along with the garlic, bay leaf, and rosemary. Simmer until the beans are tender, about 1 to 1½ hours. Drain, but reserve 2 cups of cooking liquid to use in the soup.

To cook the soup:
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
2 tsp. fresh thyme, chopped
2 cups broth
2 cups bean cooking liquid
1 pound chorizo
¼ cup whipping cream

Saute the garlic, onion, carrot, and celery in olive oil until tender. Add thyme, beans, 2 cups of broth, and 2 cups of bean cooking liquid to pot. Simmer to combine flavors, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, crumble and cook the chorizo. Drain and set aside. Remove about half of the cooked beans and vegetables from the pot and set aside with the sausage.

Working in batches, puree the other half of the cooked beans and vegetables in a food processor. If you want a thicker soup, use a slotted spoon to remove the beans and vegetables from the cooking liquid. Whatever thickness you want, just be careful not to add too much liquid to the food processor at a time. The liquid tends to spray out of the lid. Most processors have a “liquid fill line,” but a good rule of thumb is to only fill the liquid to the top of the blade.

Combine the pureed mixture with the whole beans vegetables, sausage, and cream. Warm on the stove over a low heat.

Chickpea Curry

A curry is a curry is a curry, or so I thought. My arsenal of weeknight recipes contained two curries: eggplant for summer and squash for winter. I’m excited to add this recipe as my third, but certainly not final, curry.

As I was paging through a new cooking magazine (a gift subscription from Glenn’s grandma), I was drawn to a recipe for chicken vindaloo. I took a closer look to see how it differed from my other curries and saw an odd ingredient — red wine vinegar. I couldn’t imagine how that would taste in the final dish, so of course I had to try it.

I adapted the recipe so that I could make it with items I had on hand, but kept the spices more or less the same. The vinegar gives the curry a fruity, full-mouth flavor and acts as a nice complement to the heat. Instead of chicken, I used chickpeas and carrots. I think potatoes would have been great in this dish as well.

Chickpea Curry
Serves 4
½ pound dry chickpeas
1 cinnamon stick
1½ Tbs. curry powder
2 tsp. paprika
4 Tbs. red wine vinegar
olive oil
8 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. minced ginger
1 yellow onion, sliced thin
1 carrot, sliced thin
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes with juice
cilantro, chopped

To cook chickpeas: Put dry chickpeas and cinnamon stick in a slow cooker and cover with 2-3 inches of water. Set on high heat and cook until tender, 3-4 hours. Drain.

To prepare curry: Combine curry powder, paprika, and vinegar in a small bowl. Heat olive oil in a skillet. Add ginger and garlic, saute 1 minute. Add onion and carrot, saute until tender, 3-5 minutes. Stir in spices and chickpeas. Add tomatoes with juice and simmer until mixture is heated through. Serve with rice and garnish with cilantro.