a simpler sound.

Simple dinner staples: Red Lentils with ras el hanout and rainbow carrots.


Yes, this may look like baby food to the untrained eye.

But in reality, in this mush of food lies a perfect combination of red lentils, rainbow carrots, onion, garlic, and ras el hanout.  The last ingredient has become one of my most coveted ingredients [thanks to this guy], mostly because it turns any blah dish into a thing of beauty [and tastiness].

I threw this together one late night midweek, when I wasn't in the mood to cook, but also had no interest in just eating chips and salsa for dinner.  Out came a completely simple, but hearty dish [or side accompaniment to grilled chicken, pork, fish, etc. etc.].  I highly recommend trying this the next time you need to throw something together quickly, or just have a hankering for something left of center. Also, I can't say this enough...absolutely invest in ras el hanout- it's essential for this dish!

Recipe:

1 cup red lentils
1/2 cup diced carrots [I love using rainbow carrots, mainly for their color, but also for their sweetness]
1/4 cup diced onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon ras el hanout [or more to your preference]
1 teaspoon olive oil
3 cups water
salt and pepper, to taste

In a small pot, heat the olive oil over medium and cook the onions and garlic, for a couple minutes until softened. Add the ras el hanout, and water and heat.  Once simmering, add the lentils and bring to a boil.  Cook at a simmer for 20 minutes, or until the liquid is absorbed.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve in your favorite bowl.

Serves 4





Holiday Eating Tip: Don't forget to eat your greens!


Over-eating becomes entirely too easy at this time of year.  There's an embarrassment of decadence at ever meal.  [My fridge currently has THREE different baked desserts in it, and that's just not okay.]

One way to lighten the heavy handed eating this time of year is through making healthy choices, particularly with all things green. I'm not a big vegetable eater, and I blame that on my early years dealing with "severe-picky-eater syndrome."

Over the years, I've learned to love the green stuff through learning how to cook them properly and with bold flavors.  This recipe is one I've perfected, and I can confidently use the word "perfect" because I literally can eat an entire bowl of these green beans [or string beans as they're referred to in New York], and there's something to be said about that feat.

This recipe paired well with my Thanksgiving meal, but it's quick enough to throw together for any weeknight meal.

My best time-saving tip is to have your shallots sliced [or minced] ahead of time and stored in the fridge [you can do this a few days in advance].  Shallots make me cry more than anything else [yes, even more than The Notebook] so I like to prep three or four at a time, and get all my sobbing out at once.

I also like to have a jar of nuts [this recipe uses slivered almonds, but walnuts work well too] toasted ahead of time, since that just saves you a step and again this ingredient can be used in a number of recipes.

I added some crisped, diced bacon at the last minute, because I had forgotten to use it in a soup I had made earlier in the week, and just had it sitting in the fridge. Typically, I don't use bacon, but just a bit makes all the difference.

Sauteed Green Beans with Shallots and Almonds

1/2lb. green beans, trimmed [I used local greens from NC]
1 shallot, thinly sliced [I was using diced shallots in two other dishes this Thanksgiving, so I just prepped them all in a fine dice]
1 cup slivered almonds, toasted [I like using A LOT of almonds, since they turn these beans into a much more filling dish, and help me stave off the third serving of mashed potatoes...]
1TBsp. olive oil [I like to use a good quality one here, since you really taste it]
1TBsp. unsalted butter [you can also omit the butter and double up on olive oil]
3TBsp. diced bacon, crisped [optional]
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil and cook the green beans for five minutes.  Submerge in an ice water bath for a couple minutes.  While you wait for the beans to cool, heat the olive oil and butter on medium heat in a frying pan. Add shallots and cook until softened, 2-3 minutes.  Drain the beans and dry thoroughly.  Raise the heat to medium-high and add the beans, sauteeing for 3-5 minutes.  Add the toasted almonds and cooked bacon and toss to combine.  Garnish or toss with fresh parsley and serve immediately.  

Peanut Butter Chocolate Granola Bars.



I may never buy another another granola bar ever again.  I did some digging around, and compiled ideas from various recipes, eventually evolving them into my own concoction.  I modeled these after my favorite store bought variety. Naturally [or well, unnaturally] store bought bars have all kinds of ingredients that aren't necessary or good for you, despite them all having the predisposed idea of being healthy. I used only ingredients I had around the house, and lucky for me, I keep a good variety of nuts in stock [not a reference to me or my family's insanity], as well as seeds and grains.

I'm insanely proud of these bars, since they're incredibly filling, healthy and delicious. 


  • Peanut Butter Chocolate Granola Bars
Ingredients

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup honey
  • 3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup chopped almonds
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 1/4 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/4 cup chopped macadamia nuts
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 1/4 cup flax seeds [optional]
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 egg whites, whisked [optional, but acts as a binder, which allows you to use less butter]
  • 1/2 cup agave syrup
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter [I use Skippy because I'm still 10 years old, but natural peanut butter would amp up the health factor in this recipe - natural = less sugar]
  • 1/4 semi-sweet chocolate chips

Directions


Preheat oven to 325 F. Lightly grease an 8 by 8-inch baking dish and set aside.
In a small saucepan melt butter with honey over low heat, stirring.
In a large bowl stir together oats, nuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, cinnamon and salt. Pour butter mixture over oat mixture and stir until combined well. Add the egg whites and stir until combined.
On a large baking sheet, [if you have a silpat sheet, use it!] spread the granola evenly in a thin layer. Bake, stirring every 5-10 minutes to keep from sticking or burning, until golden brown and crisp, about 20 minutes. 
Cool the granola and place in a large bowl.
Combine the brown sugar, corn syrup, and peanut butter in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is at a boil. Remove from the heat and pour the mixture over the granola, stirring to coat well. Cool slightly and add in chocolate chips. Press the mixture into the prepared baking dish and let cool completely and harden. Cut the mixture into bars and serve at room temperature.

Easy Comfort Food: Hodge Podge Macaroni + Cheese.

With the blustering winds that brought chilly weather prematurely to Atlanta for the past week, I've been on a comfort food kick, stocking up my fridge with my favorite soups, stews, and most importantly with a big platter of macaroni and cheese.  There's just nothing like homemade, and it's insanely simple to throw together.  The secret is in the cheese, and this is a perfect time to get rid of the last bits left in the fridge [hence the name 'hodge podge', which then naturally gives me a good excuse to buy more! 

Hodge Podge Macaroni + Cheese.

Béchamel Sauce [taken from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home]

[this will make more sauce than you need, which I like to reserve and use later in the week for a baked chicken dish or broccoli-cheese casserole]


3 TBsp unsalted butter
3 TBsp all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 TBsp finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 tsp finely chopped thyme
pinch of cayenne pepper

My added ingredients:

1 tsp white truffle oil [optional, not everyone loves truffles- but I can't get enough!]
12-14 oz cheese, shredded and/or crumbled
[I happened to have sharp yellow cheddar and goat cheese in the fridge, so that's what I used, but I've literally used every cheese I can think of [with the exception of a blue or gorgonzola- they're too overpowering to mix with other cheeses]

1/2 lb elbow macaroni


Melt the butter in a medium saucepan [I use my Le Creuset cast iron braiser] over medium heat.  Whisk in the flour and cook for 2 to 3 minutes; adjust the heat as needed so that the mixture does not brown. Whisk in the milk, lower the heat to keep the béchamel at a gentle simmer, and cook, whisking often, until the sauce has thickened and reduced to about 2 cups, 30 to 40 minutes; move the whisk over the bottom and into the corners of the pan to be sure the béchamel doesn't burn. In the last 15 minutes of reducing the sauce, bring water to a boil and cook the elbow macaroni to al dente.


If you have a fine mesh strainer, strain the béchamel into another bowl, and then return it to the saucepan. Straining is optional since it helps to create a more velvety [not velveeta!] consistency.  Add the truffle oil and cheese and whisk to combine. Add enough sauce to the macaroni [not all of it, as this is a double recipe for sauce] and you're done!

I sometimes like to add buttered bread crumbs to the top and bake off the macaroni in the oven for several minutes, but this time, I was starving and just dug right in.  Yum.




Layering Flavors: Turkey Meatballs with marsala sauteed mushrooms, wilted arugula and brown rice with a spicy parsley sauce.


Whenever I go out to a nice restaurant for dinner, I'm always hyper aware of two things: the presentation and the depth of flavors. I'm the type of cook who loves throwing things together on the fly and as quickly as possible.  That sort of cooking typically involves a lot of one pot [or pan] cooking, and not the most artful presentation when all is said and done. 

I do occasionally get inspired to push my usual boundaries a bit and try creating slightly more complex meals.  I still made this recipe off the cuff, with ingredients I already had in the fridge and garden. When I was making this dish, I realized as I was jotting down notes, how tough it must be to write a cook book with more complex recipes.  This was fairly simple, but since I used a number of ingredients and cooked them all separately, it was fairly laborious to write down.  So here's the run through of my new dish and I apologize for the wordiness in advance!

Turkey Meatballs with marsala sauteed mushrooms, wilted arugula and brown rice with a spicy parsley sauce. 

Ingredients

2 cups arugula, cleaned and dried
1 cup brown rice


For the mushrooms:
2 TBsp unsalted butter
1 TBsp olive oil
1 shallot, diced [with some removed for meatballs]
3-5 garlic cloves, minced [with some removed for meatballs]
1lb. white button mushrooms, sliced
1/2 cup marsala wine
1/4 cup water [or chicken broth, I was just out at the time]

For the meatballs:
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 pound ground turkey
1 egg
1/4 cup plain bread crumbs
1 teaspoon coarse ground mustard
1 TBsp of diced shallots [see above]
1 tsp of minced garlic [see above]
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon parsley, minced


For the spicy parsley sauce:
1 bunch flat leaf parsley, cleaned and stems removed
pinch of sugar
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes [or more if you like the heat]
salt and pepper, to taste


Directions

Make the brown rice according to directions on box [takes about 45 minutes so you want to take care of this first- unless you're using instant]

When cooking the mushrooms, find the widest pan you have, since the mushrooms shouldn't crowd the pan.  I actually still don't have a large enough pan to cook a decent sized amount of mushrooms, so you can always cook them in batches, and in that case, just split the butter and oil in half and reserve half the shallots and garlic for the second batch.

Heat the butter and olive oil over medium heat and add the shallots and garlic, allowing them to soften for 2-3 minutes. Raise heat to medium high and add the mushrooms, making sure all sides are coated by the butter mixture.  Leave them alone and allow them to sauté until they begin to brown, 5-10 minutes. After at least five minutes, move the mushrooms around allow both sides to brown.

Remove them from the pan [I placed them in my warming drawer, but you can also just cover with foil to retain the heat] and add the marsala wine and water, scraping the brown bits off the bottom and allowing it to thicken, about 15 minutes.

While the sauce is cooking, start on the meatballs. Heat oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat and combine the rest of the ingredients in a bowl and form into small, golf sized balls. Once oil is hot, add to the pan and brown, turning them every so often to ensure an even crust, about 10 minutes total. 


While the meatballs brown, put together the spicy parsley sauce. [I used my food processor for this, but you can create this with a good knife and a whisk as well.] Place all ingredients, except for oil in the food processor and pulse a few times until combined.  Then drizzle oil through top while the processor is running, just until the ingredients combine, about 10-20 seconds. 

Once the sauce has thickened slightly, pour it over the mushrooms, reserving a bit in the pan.  Place the arugula in the pan with the remaining sauce and allow it to wilt slightly.  

Then, all that's left to do is assemble all the ingredients.  Check out how I layered everything below! 

Serves 2-3








Recipe Reviewing + Tweaking: Apple Crisp from Tartine.


Cat-sitting for my neighbors garners all kinds of yummy treats.  This time I was presented with half a peck of apples [yes, that's how apples are measured] and some yummy blueberry hand pies. These gargantuan apples [most were the size of a softball!] came from Ellijay, Georgia, the home of the Georgia Apple Festival.  I believe they're of the Fuji variety and they were naturally very sweet. 

Since I hate when fruit goes to waste, I knew I wanted to bake these off immediately.  It was the perfect rainy day in Atlanta for something warm and decadent. I had been meaning to try out another recipe from Tartine.  Most of the recipes in this cookbook are rather advanced, but the Apple Crisp I stumbled upon seemed fool-proof.  I'm extremely picky about my baked goods [brownies must be gooey, pies need that perfect crust, etc.] so when I follow a recipe from a cookbook, I like to follow it verbatim the first go around, and then make note of things I would change.  

I'll start by saying this recipe did turn out delicious.  I even found myself sneaking bites of the almost caramelized topping late last night - Nigella style [if you've ever watched Nigella Lawson's cooking shows, she always sneaks to the fridge 'late at night' and grabs a bite of whatever she created that day.  I absolutely love her and her unabashed obsession with food].

I knew the crisp would be tasty- I mean we're talking about Tartine here, one of the best bakeries in the US. But I find a lot of what I've made from this cookbook almost TOO decadent.  I try to cook healthier, always being conscious of what I put into my meals, and I'm the same way with baking.  When I saw the recipe called for ONE cup of butter, I knew I was in trouble...


Apple Crisp
Tartine
[areas in parentheses + orange are my recommended changes]

3 pounds assorted apples [the apples I used were perfectly firm, but quite sweet, so next time I'd recommend using a more tart variety]
1/4 cup sugar [if using a Fuji like I did, I would decrease the amount of sugar to just 3TBsp, whereas a tart apple might be able to take the larger quantity of sugar]
3 tablespoons lemon juice [MUST be fresh- but this worked wonders on the apples. Yum!]
grated lemon zest from one lemon [ditto to above]
1/8 teaspoon salt [as a cook, salt and acids make a dish- and I think the same goes for baking- use a fine grain salt here]

1 cup unsalted butter, cold [this was entirely too much butter, though I do know that's what gives it that crisp texture.  I actually was short on butter, so I only used around 3/4cup, and found it still too rich.  I recommend trying this with 1/2 cup [1 stick] or even 1/3 if you're trying to be extra healthy.  I like to add a bit of milk to the batter if it needs some extra smoothing out]
1 cup sugar [I found it too sweet personally, though that might be a combination of the apples and the topping.  I would half the sugar at the very least]
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon [this was certainly a lot of cinnamon, which I love.  But it could probably be decreased to two teaspoons, and would still carry that bold spice]
1/8 teaspoon salt [I would increase this to 1/4 teaspoon, because I love the combination of sweet and salty!]

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9×13-inch baking dish.
Peel (some or all, as you prefer) [I prefer peeling all- I'm not a fan of the firm skin of the apple when baked], core and slice [thinly- they almost melt in your mouth this way!] the apples and place them in a large mixing bowl. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, lemon juice and zest, and salt. Add to the apples and mix well with your hands. [I actually prefer to mix these ingredients in a large bowl first, then add the sliced apples to that, mixing occasionally. The immediate contact with the lemon juice prevents the apples from browning while you work and you save on cleaning one extra bowl!] Transfer the apples to the baking dish. 
To make the topping, place the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl. Using a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment on medium speed, or a wooden spoon, beat together until smooth. Add the flour, cinnamon and salt and mix just until it comes together in a smooth dough.
To top the crisp, scoop up palm-sized balls of the dough, flatten each scoop as if you are making a 1/4-inch thick tortilla, and lay it on top of the apples. Cover the entire surface of the apples with the dough rounds. Gaps in the topping are okay; they will allow steam to escape during baking.
Bake the crisp until the apples are tender and the topping is golden brown, about 1 1/2 hours [because I sliced the apples thin, this really only needed 45 minutes to 1 hour]. If the top is getting too dark before the crisp is done, cover it with aluminum foil. Let cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. The crisp will keep well in the refrigerator for up to 1 week [this is a lie- the crisp will disappear within a day or two at most...]

I absolutely recommend trying the recipe exactly how it's written in the cookbook, but the way to becoming a good cook or baker is taking recipes and putting your own spin on them.  Whether you decide to omit certain ingredients, tweak the quantities, or alter the technique, you're evolving as a cook [and recipe writer!].







Zucchini Pasta with Seared Scallops in a Chive Cream Sauce.


If you haven't noticed, I love Italian food.  I feel like there's this recurring trend of pasta and pizza in my posts.  It's a love affair I can't seem to quit. The family I cook for [have I mentioned I cook for a family?] wants to omit carbs as much as possible from their diet, which is commendable, but also torture for me.  90% of what I love to cook involves pasta, and it's something I've had to actively phase out of my repertoire.  It takes some creative work to come up with alternatives for such a major food group, but sometimes, the results can be delicious.


I recently tried a recipe for "zucchini spaghetti" and of course it was absolutely nothing like a traditional pasta. That being said, I was really impressed with how it tasted.  I've made spaghetti squash plenty of times, but zucchini is something I'd be more likely to have on hand.


My mom found this recipe on Martha Stewart's site, and I tweaked it to make it a bit more healthy. Don't get me wrong, I love me some heavy cream and there is absolutely a time and a place for it, I just try to keep it to a minimum. I also opted not to slice the zucchini as narrow as I paired this with seared scallops [something I've grown to love in recent years].


Zucchini Pasta with Seared Scallops in a Chive Cream Sauce


For the Zucchini:
1lb. zucchini, both ends cut off
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Mandoline [but this can also be done with a vegetable peeler, or a knife if you've got expert skills]
Colander


Slice zucchini in half, lengthwise.  Then, slice lengthwise in long, thin strips [if done this way, the thickness is similar to that of pappardelle pasta]. Combine zucchini with salt and allow it to sit in a colander for 15 minutes.


Lay on paper towels to remove any excess water [the salt naturally draws out water from foods FYI].


For the Chive Cream Sauce:
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2/3 cup half and half [you can also use whole milk, but it's much thinner and affects the texture of the sauce]
1/3 cup freshly minced chives 
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt [plus more to taste]


Whisk together all ingredients and allow it to sit [can sit covered in the fridge for an hour if need be]


For the Scallops:
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
6-8 diver scallops, rinsed and dried
Salt and Pepper, to taste


Heat butter and oil on medium high heat [making sure not to burn butter].  Season scallops and cook for two minutes per side.  The scallops will turn golden brown, while staying a creamy white at the center. 


To assemble:


Combine 1/4 cup of sauce with zucchini.  Place 2-3 diver scallops [per person] on top of a half cup of zucchini.  Drizzle top with additional sauce, and a squeeze of lemon. Garnish with chives.


Serves 3-4


This is a perfect, simple, light summer meal. Enjoy!







Summer Spinach Salad with Sugared Pecans.



On a hot day, something cool and refreshing is the only thing I can tolerate to eat. Ice cream and popsicles aside, I actually really enjoy a good salad on a day like this.  Usually my salads consist of a hodge podge of ingredients found in my fridge.  I'm of the 'more is more' mindset when it comes to ingredients in my salad.  That being said, here's what I'm eating today:


Jo's Hot Summer Spinach Salad with Sugared Pecans


Serves 2 [or one very hungry girl, like myself]


For the dressing:
1 Tablespoon unfiltered apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 squeeze of clementine juice [this probably comes to about a teaspoon I'd guess]
salt & pepper [to taste]
a pinch of sugar [depending on the fruit in my salad, I sometimes omit this, but it does add a nice balance to the acidity of the vinegar]


Whisk all ingredients together in a large bowl.


For the salad:
2 cups baby spinach
1 tablespoon of alfalfa sprouts [I really like pea shoots too, whatever you've got around works]
1-2 clementines, segmented [or tangerines, or naval oranges]
1/4 cup raspberries, lightly rinsed


Add baby spinach to the large bowl with dressing and toss to coat. Add in sprouts, clementines and raspberries, gently tossing.  


For the Sugared pecans:
1 cup pecans [this is a bit much in one salad, so I like to save some for snacking later]
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1/4 cup sugar


Warm a pan on medium heat and add nuts.  Allow them to toast for a few minutes, just until they become fragrant.  Add butter and melt.  Toss to coat. Remove from heat and add sugar and toss to combine.


Add 1/4 cup of pecans to salad, lightly tossing.


I also like to add sliced grilled chicken breast to this salad.  In the summer, I like to grill a lot of chicken at once, allow them to cool, slice and store them in the fridge.  Then, I can always add them to any meal. 








I could eat pizza everyday.



I could. I could eat it several times a week, easily. I mean, everyone loves pizza [more or less]. Being from New York, I take my pizza VERY seriously. And I've had some pretty impressive pizza here in Atlanta [but nothing beats my ALL TIME FAVORITE PIZZA PLACE].  But there's something about making pizza from scratch that tastes so much better. 

The toughest part is really making your own dough, since it involves a lot of waiting and hoping you didn't completely botch up the recipe! Though I usually make my own dough, the next best thing is going to your favorite pizza place and asking them if they sell their dough.  I usually walk down the street to Fellinis and pick up dough there [for a large pizza, it's only $2!] which cuts down pizza making time significantly.  

Then, it's just a matter of rolling out the dough and picking out your toppings.  I like keeping things simple with just good sauce and fresh mozzarella and basil, but this particular night, we went all out. 



For one pizza, we used: blue cheese, bosc pears, walnuts, red onions, and these amazing caramelized onions as a sauce.  We also did a red sauce with sauteed cremini mushrooms, fresh ricotta and basil.  There were a couple other derivatives using these ingredients, and all tasted fantastic.  For a change of pace, we attempted to grill these on my charcoal grill.  I imagine they'll turn out better next time, since this go-around, the heat was too strong, leaving them crusty on the bottom and uncooked on top.  However, a quick trip to the broiler remedied this quickly.

Next time, try making pizza at home.  Even with some hiccups, it tastes delicious every time [it just may not look pretty, but who cares about that sort of thing anyway?].




Cravings.

Sometimes you just crave it.  You need that quick fix. It hits you out of nowhere; this guttural sensation.  Nothing else can satiate your appetite...


but CHOCOLATE.


[Allright, now you can all get your heads out of the gutter]






I don't consider myself to have a sweet tooth.  In fact, my tastes almost always lean towards the salty. But every so often, I'll find myself in desperate need for dessert. 


My cravings start up well after dinner, so rather than making a late night run to the grocery for baked goods or a pint of ice cream, I tend to whip something up myself.  I have this weird notion that if I make something from scratch, the calories don't count [or at least they're slightly more justifiable]. 


Here's a photo of one of my fastest desserts ever made: my Dark chocolate peanut butter truffles.  Basically it's one part chocolate [I like to use dark or semi-sweet] and two parts creamy peanut butter, melted over a double boiler together [you can also do this in the microwave, but you really need to watch it since it only takes a couple seconds in the wrong direction to burn and cause catastrophe to your sweet treat].


Then, I refrigerate this combination in a bowl [you can attempt to speed this up in the freezer, but make sure it's not in a glass bowl- it can crack]. 


Then, just use a melon baller or measuring teaspoon, and scoop out small bites.  Round them in the palm of your hands and roll them in crushed pecans or cocoa powder for an instant dessert.  It's actually a decent post workout snack [just one truffle!] since it's got great protein from the peanut butter and pecans.



Memorial Day Weekend Grilling: Skirt Steak with Zucchini and Squash.


This Memorial Day weekend, I'm staying in Atlanta. All I want to do is lay out in the sun, swim, and smell charcoal perfuming the air.  Yes, I love to grill.  I'm particularly partial to cooking two things: my mom's famous filipino chicken kebabs [will post this recipe at a later date!] and grilled steak.  Normally, I love a good rib eye with nothing else but salt, pepper and some canola oil.

Last week, I decided to try my hand at a cheaper cut of meat, the skirt steak.  I've heard this is amazing on the grill, but it absolutely requires a lengthy time marinating to achieve that tender, juicy bite. 

I decided this fairly last minute, so rather than concoct my own marinade, I used this one.  I've had Stubbs BBQ when I've been to Austin and there's a reason it's a Texas staple.  Everything I've ever purchased from their line of sauces and marinades has been pitch perfect with anything I cook. 

For this recipe, I just threw the skirt steak in a ziplock bag with a few glugs of the marinade, and let it sit for several hours [around 3 to 4].  Since I know Stubbs tends to have a spicy marinade, I lightly rinsed the meat afterwards and patted it off with paper towels.  Even with doing this, the meat will still retain all that flavor imparted from the marinade. 

I used some of the remaining marinade and mixed it with canola oil and spread that on sliced zucchini and yellow squash.  The steak took hardly any time at all, about 4-5 on the first side and only 2-3 on the second.  I lowered the heat for the veggies, so they took a bit longer to get that nice, charred exterior. 

Another key to great skirt steak is to allow it to rest for at least 10-15 minutes and then cut it on a bias, or against the grain.  For some reason, this allows the meat to melt in your mouth, to the point where you don't really even need a knife for it.  The family I cook for absolutely loved this steak and since it was so simple, I'm planning on grilling more up this weekend.  


A Little Piece of New Orleans: Cafe Du Monde's Beignets.


Sometimes, I just crave something sweet and indulgent. It often comes out of nowhere and I need an immediate fix. A few Sundays ago, it seemed like the perfect time to try out a  house sitting from my neighbors. Since they had been on a trip to New Orleans for a jazz festival, they were so kind to bring us back one of my favorite things from the French quarter: beignets.  Well, not exactly the beignets themselves, since they're only delicious when fresh from frying in hot oil.  Instead, they gave us a box of beignet mix from the world famous Cafe Du Monde.

It's an extremely simple 'recipe.'  All we needed to do after combining the mix with water was press it flat and cut into two inch squares. 



Deep frying can seem a bit daunting, but this trick took all the stress out of the task.  I simply put oil in my exceptionally handy slow cooker and heated it to the exact temperature the recipe required [I believe it was 350F]. Frying the dough took hardly any time at all, though I had to do so in a few batches.  


All that was left was a sift of powdered sugar on top of these puffy delights. I didn't have any powdered sugar on hand, but was able to make it so easily with my Vitamix. That blender was a pretty penny, but the fact that I can make flours and sugars on the fly is pretty neat.


And there you have it- a bit of New Orleans made in minutes in my kitchen on a Sunday morning.  They weren't as fluffy as the ones I'd tasted at the actual Cafe Du Monde, but just as delicious.  They also went perfectly with our chicory coffee. Here's a bit of history behind the use of chicory with coffee. Just writing this is causing me to have all kinds of cravings for these sweet treats again!







Simple [and healthy!] Recipe: pasta with pancetta and garbanzo beans.


I love how simple Italian cooking can be.  It's so ingredient-focused, and takes advantage of what's fresh and in season. I could cook most dishes with five ingredients or less and still have a meal full of depth and flavor.  This quick recipe has a few more than five, but the key ingredients for my sauce are shown above.  
Pancetta, sometimes known as 'Italian bacon' is one of my favorite ingredients to cook with.  It's leaner than your usual bacon and isn't smoked, so the flavor is a bit more clean, but still has that salty, savory bite. [Check out this simple recipe too for another great way to use pancetta].

For this pasta dish, get your large pot filled with water and bring to a boil.  While you wait for the water, all you need to do is brown the pancetta until it crisps up, then add a bit of olive oil [no more than a tablespoon] if you need it, but usually the pancetta will impart enough fat to coat enough of the bottom of your pan.  Add your garlic and chickpeas, just lightly sautéing, making sure not to brown the garlic.  Add your tomatoes, and one cup of homemade chicken stock [I always keep some in my fridge and freezer, since it makes such a difference in so many recipes]. This will deglaze any brown bits from the bottom of your pan.  You can pull up anything that sticks to the pan with your wooden spoon [this is Italian cooking after all, a wooden spoon is essential!]. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper accordingly.  I also like to add a pinch of red pepper flakes for a little spice. Let the sauce simmer while your pasta cooks [for this recipe I used about a half pound of whole wheat penne].


Once your pasta is al dente, drain it, reserving a bit of pasta water. Add your basil in at the last minute to the sauce, and then add your pasta with a few tablespoons of the pasta water.  


This recipe is a perfect one to whip up at the last minute.  You could easily use canned tomatoes, and dried basil [but fresh is always best with this sort of thing] if you haven't had time to head out for fresh produce. I've never used garbanzo beans [aka- chick peas] in my pasta before, but it added a nice heartiness to the meal. Chopped artichokes, olives, and peppers all make easy additions to pasta.  Once you have the basics down, putting together a quick pasta sauce becomes second nature.  

what's cooking tonight: roasted baby carrots with shaved sunchokes & chives in truffle oil.



I'm an ad-hoc cook in every way.  I cook with whatever happens to be in my fridge, pantry, or garden.  I'm an expert at taking foods that are on their last breath, and giving them a nudge in the right direction [a direction that usually ends in something delicious]. 

Yesterday, while cleaning out the fridge, I discovered a couple bags of baby carrots that I'd completely forgotten about.  They looked surprisingly okay, but just a bit dry.  There was also a hunk of sunchoke [also known as the Jerusalem Artichoke- for more on the etymology, check this out] that's been sitting in my fridge for a while now and desperately needed to be used [I hate wasting anything, especially weird vegetables I spend too much money on].  I took a peek at the garden y chive plant needed a haircut- she was starting to get split ends, so that got added to the jumble. You can see a the chives in the navy pot at the bottom of this photo, though they've since been moved to a sunnier spot on the deck. I just wanted to use this shot because it has Maggie crying in the background. Finally, I've been craving anything with truffle oil for the last few days [a little odd, yes] since the talk of truffle mac and cheese has come up in conversation recently, so I thought I'd figure out a way to incorporate it into tonight's meal [without making the mac, since I'm pathetically out of pasta]. 


I've never cooked with this combination of ingredients before, but figured with four ingredients, you can't go too far in the wrong direction.  I decided to shave the sunchoke, since it was a bit on the soft side, and it reminded me of ginger, which is always good with this application. 



All that was left to be done was to mince the chives [a task made even easier with a pair of kitchen shears] and toss everything together.  Here are the measurements:

2 packages baby carrots [approximately 1lb]
1 knob of sunchoke, thick outer layer removed and the rest shaved with a veggie peeler or mandoline [about 1/4 cup]
1 bunch chives, minced [about 3-4 TBsp]
1 TBsp White Truffle Oil [pricey, but a small bottle will last you an entire year I promise]
Salt & Pepper to taste

I preheated the oven to just 375F. Because I shaved the sunchoke, I wasn't sure how quick it would roast, so I lowered my usual roasting temperature to compensate.  I'm going to watch this recipe closely and see how long it takes to cook, but I'm assuming 30-45 minutes. Since I haven't made this before, I'll update this post with how it goes and any changes I'd make to the recipe.


In the meantime, I'm off to record something called 'Jitterbug Zombies' with some friends.  [details to follow].

Quatro, Cinco, Seis: blackened chicken tacos + a KILLER margarita recipe.



Cinco de Mayo became a three day affair in my house this year, and the results were muy delicioso! I went all out with one of my favorite meals, [and fool-proof party ideas] the taco bar. There's just something so gratifying about building your own tacos [it's like having this place in your house- if only!] and having a whole array of toppings to choose from.


Though I ventured into [grass-fed] beef and tilapia as well, my favorite taco filling had to be my blackened chicken. I made these SUPER easy by just pulling together some spices I had in my pantry.  I never really measure when cooking- I'm definitely the cook who does things by feel and taste, but I've really got to get into the habit of writing things down and testing them properly!


Jo's Blackened Chicken Tacos 


3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
3 TBsp. olive oil [vegetable or canola work too- just not extra virgin olive oil since its burning point is too low for this recipe]
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. crushed Aleppo chili
1/4 tsp. Ancho chili powder
Coarse sea or kosher salt [to taste]
Fresh ground pepper [to taste]
Large, heavy bottomed skillet
Fresh lime juice [optional]



Combine the spices in a separate bowl and sprinkle on both sides of chicken, making sure to coat evenly [if this isn't enough, you can easily make more of this spice mixture]. Lightly season both sides of chicken with salt and pepper [you can always add more later]. Heat oil over medium-high until oil gently ripples. [if it's smoking, you've gone too far!] Cook on each side for 4-5 minutes, making sure not to move the chicken during this process- this helps ensure that nice, brown crust- the best part!]


Remove chicken from heat and allow it to cool for 5 minutes.  The only thing left to do is slice it crosswise, or chop into small bites like I did.  Though I love pulled chicken, this is not the time for this application, since you want to preserve the integrity of the blackened exterior, and pulling the chicken apart will only result in really tasty fingers, since the spices will end up all over you and not your chicken. Finally, squeeze fresh lime juice over the chicken for an extra bite.


This served five of us perfectly, with each of us making 2-3 tacos.


The chicken is best served a little warm, so as soon as you've sliced it, get the party started! If you've got some time to kill, just cover the chicken with foil until you're ready to serve.  The hit of lime juice should keep it moist. [This chicken is great in anything Mexican inspired- burritos, enchiladas, nachos, quesadillas, you name it.]


My taco bar consisted of: monterey jack cheese, light sour cream, sliced red onions, diced orange and yellow bell peppers, refried beans, red cabbage, salsa, guacamole


Some other great additions: green onions, cilantro, saffron rice, queso fresco, black beans


And NOW for my favorite excuse to celebrate Cinco de Mayo: the MARGARITAS.


I'm not one to have the salt on the rim of my glass, but there is something so perfect about that salty, tart bite you get from the combination of [good] tequila and fresh limes.  My neighbors joined in on our Cuatro de Mayo dinner and introduced me to what has to be the best margarita I've had, and it's so simple to make!


Danny's KILLER Blue Agave Margarita 


1/2 oz. water
1/2 oz. 100% pure Blue Agave Nectar  [we used this brand]
1 oz. fresh squeezed lime juice [I bought about 24 limes for the whole weekend!]
2 oz. Tequila [I don't drink it very often, but when I do, it's Patron Silver...keepin' it classy]
Lots of ice
Cocktail Shaker


Fill the shaker halfway with ice. Combine the water and agave nectar in a jigger [shot glass] and add to the shaker, along with the lime juice and tequila.  Shake it up and strain into an ice filled glass. SO simple, but definitely not for the faint-hearted [I've been told to keep these at a maximum of two per night]


Not a fan of agave, or just in the mood for trying something different?


By the second night of festivities [on actual Cinco de Mayo], I switched things up a bit by replacing the agave with a homemade minted simple syrup.


I've got FIVE kinds of mint growing in the garden right now [spearmint, corsican mint, apple mint, orange mint,  and lemon mint- also known as bergamot or bee balm], and if you've never worked with mint in the garden, it's basically a fragrant and tasty weed- so I've got more than enough for a whole summer of mojitos, mint juleps, mint tea, etc. etc. etc.


To make a basic simple syrup, just add equal parts sugar and water to a pot and simmer until the sugar is dissolved. I just added an equal part of mint to this combination and let it steep for about 15 minutes.  Let it cool on the stovetop, and then transfer it to a glass jar and into your fridge.  The results are a slightly green, syrupy mixture that's perfect for any drink, alcoholic or not. 


Over the course of the weekend, I put back my fair share of margaritas, so I decided to opt for the mocktail version to close out the fiesta. I omitted the tequila altogether, and replaced it with a stevia based lemon-lime soda [the same brand's ginger ale also works really well here].


After such a tasty weekend, I may have to start up a monthly taco + margarita night [Cinco de Junio anyone?], since waiting until next May may just be impossible.