Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Need A Fajita?

Sometimes I just need a fajita.  The weather here in central New York has been unusually warm this week.  A little summer fake out if you will.  A perfect time to bust out the grill!  We had fajitas the other night and got to thinking...why go out to an overly salty chain restaurant and spend too much money when you can make this dinner just as well (or better) at home for a fraction of the price?  Don't get me wrong, I love to go out to eat but for me it's a treat, once every 3 or 4 weeks (sometimes more) or so.  We eat in to save money and often it's much better for you. You don't need a recipe.  Just a few key ingredients.
Now, I am aware that red, yellow and orange bell peppers can be a little expensive, however, considering that you only need about a half of each pepper for fajitas, you will have plenty left over to make other meals during the week.  Slice them into strips with an onion or two and either saute in a skillet on the stove or on a pan on the grill.  We used the stove this time.
While you're cooking peppers and onions and grilling a steak or chicken breast (just season with some salt and pepper and maybe a squirt of lime), you can warm your tortillas in some foil in the oven at about 200 degrees.  If you like a little yellow rice (seasoned) start that too.
Meanwhile you can chop up what my clever 9 year old calls "the details".  That would be your tomatoes, avocados, cheese and limes if you choose.
We always like black beans with our fajitas (or tacos or burritos) so we warmed some up with a chopped up summer squash (just to mix things up a bit).  Throw it all in one skillet so you can eat family style and limit the number of dishes you dirty.
This fiesta was just as tasty (and far less salty) than any you will get in a restaurant and WAY cheaper.  We did the math.  When figuring out the price per person we definitely rounded up and since we got a really great deal on this steak we even doubled the price so it would be more realistic to what you might find. 
Steak Fajitas at Chili's with rice and beans are $14.50.  There are 4 of us so that would be $58.00.  That of course is not including tax, tip and over priced beverages.  I think everyone had at least two (Hayden had his without tortilla's because he can't bite into them with all of his missing teeth).  Our fajita dinner was under $6.00 per person (details and all) and yes, there were leftovers.  You can't beat that!  I will bet that I saved a bunch of calories and sodium by eating at home too.  Give it some thought the next time you need a fajita.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Pesto Magic

Yesterday Nelsy came home from the grocery store with a nice big bunch of fresh basil (the kind that comes with the roots so you can keep it going for a while in a cup of water).  I could smell it all the way upstairs within minutes of it entering the house.  Fresh basil and fresh cilantro are two of my favorite smells (and tastes for that matter).  I find it so worth it to buy these (and parsley) fresh because they can have such an amazing impact on a meal.  Last week I tried a new recipe from (you guessed it) Food TV Magazine's cookbook which included a homemade pesto.  This was called Vegetable Couscous with Moroccan Pesto and it was quite delicious!

Whenever I make pesto I can't help but be amazed by how just a few simple ingredients can be blended together can create such fantastic flavor and how easy it is to make great food at home.  You may be more familiar with basil pesto but this one has cilantro, parsley, almonds, garlic, salt and olive oil.  This stuff smells so good.
You just throw it all in the food processor or blender and let it go until its pretty smooth.  You can whip up a batch with your unused herbs (if you think they will go bad before you use them again) and freeze it for later use.  That's exactly what I did with all the basil from the garden at the end of the summer.  It was so nice to have it during the winter and some pesto in the grocery store can be a little pricey.
This is making me hungry.  Pesto is so versatile, you can use whatever herbs you like, whatever nuts you like (last summer I was too cheap to buy pine nuts so I used the pistachios I had in the cupboard, just as tasty) and you can add cheese (parm in your basil pesto) or not, its your call.  The recipe for this pesto is included in the link above.  We could just end this here and you could throw this stuff on anything from pasta to chicken to steak to shrimp but we're still talking about this couscous recipe so hold tight.
This is so easy. ANYONE can make this.  You chop up a couple of carrots, an onion, zucchini and or chard (we all know how I feel about chard).

You make this little bundle of parsley stems and cinnamon sticks (and if you don't have string I'm willing to bet it would be just as good if you chopped the parsley and threw the sticks in and pulled them out in the end).

You add the veg and the bundle and some water and some canned tomatoes and some raisins (I can't stand raisins but I added them, maybe a little less than called for) and simmer for a bit.

This is when you start the couscous.  This is whole wheat Israeli couscous.  I had never had it before and I must say I really liked it.  It's nice to have another alternative to rice and pasta.
Although we are not opposed to meatless meals, this one seemed like we might be left a little hungry.  So we grilled up some salmon to go with it.
How ridiculous is that? This beautiful plate of food was so simple to make, healthy and really tasty.  Since I didn't alter the recipe at all the link is included at the top of this post.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Feed Your Friends

For many people there is a very busy weekend on deck.  Between St. Paddy's Day and basketball there's a chance that you might need some good grub to share with your friends.  I've got just the thing.  It's not even a little bit Irish though.  Besides, I have no interest in eating cabbage and blood sausage with my friends.  This recipe started as Giada De Laurentis' Short Rib Chili but with all the adjustments, substitutions and omissions I made, she probably wouldn't recognize it as her own.  I call it ~ Shredded Beef (I do love my shredded meats you know). 
There are a couple of ingredients in this recipe that are likely out of the norm if you don't do much cooking but I've scaled that down too.  These chiles in the picture are pretty great.  They're dried New Mexico chiles and I found and used a 1oz pkg (4 chiles).  The other unusual ingredient is instant espresso coffee.  I don't know why on earth anyone would drink the stuff but it was a nice addition to this recipe!
So check this out, you put those New Mexico Chiles in about 1 Cup of water in a sauce pan and simmer until tender and then pop them in a blender and puree until smooth.  Look at how amazing that color is!  Those are the same chiles as pictured above.  So after you brown some chuck roast (much more cost effective than short ribs but with the same effect), you cook up some onions and spices and and then add some beef broth, these blended chiles and if you're us, a shot of tequila (optional) and the espresso. 
Return the meat and it's juices to the pot and bring to a simmer.  Then you cover the pot and put it in a preheated 350 oven for 2 hours and 30 minutes.  Go watch some hoops and clean the bathroom.
Next, remove from the oven and shred the meat with two forks either right in the pot or remove the chunks of meat to a cutting board and return when shredded.  Then you add some black beans, canned tomatoes, cilantro and lime juice.  This stuff smells De-Lish!  Season with a little salt and pepper to taste and keep it on low on the stove until you're ready to eat. 

Technically this started out as a chili recipe but personally I feel like its a lot of meat and not enough other stuff to eat by itself.  Use it to make burritos and add avocado, chopped fresh spinach and a little grated cheese.  Or make a plate of nachos by spooning some over multi-grain chips and top with a little shredded cheddar and melt in the oven for a couple of minutes....Don't forget the guacamole!

Shredded Beef

2.5 to 3 lb chuck roast trimmed and cut into 6-8 pieces
Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
1 oz pkg dried New Mexico chiles (about 4) stemmed, seeded and torn into pieces.
3 Tbs extra virgin olive oil
6 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
1 Tbs cumin
1 Tbs fresh or dried oregano
1 cup beef broth
1 tsp instant espresso coffee
1 15oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
juice of 1/2 a lime
a handful of fresh cilantro chopped.

Preheat oven to 350.  After trimming and cutting beef into pieces, season with 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper.

Bring New Mexico chiles and 1 Cup water to a simmer over high heat.  Cover and reduce to med-low and simmer until just tender about 5-6 min.  Transfer to a blender, puree until smooth (hold that lid on tight!). 

Heat oil in a large pot over med-high heat and add beef in batches and brown on all sides, transferring to a bowl each time.

Add garlic and red onion to the pot and saute in the drippings until onions soften, about 5 min.  Mix in the cumin and oregano.  Add the chile puree, 1 cup of broth and espresso; stir to blend.  Return the meat and juices to the pot; stir to coat.  Bring to a simmer.  Cover and place in the oven and braise until meat is very tender, about 2 1/2 hours.

Once out of the oven shred meat with two forks either in the pot or transfer to a cutting board to shred and then return to the pot.  Mix in the black beans, tomatoes, a handful of chopped cilantro and the juice of 1/2 a lime.  If you're eating it straight up, you may want to add a little extra broth at this point.

Serve in bowls with corn bread and top with chopped scallions, diced avocado and shredded cheese.  Or use as burrito/taco fillings or nacho toppers...very versatile!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Spring Fever

Spring is definitely in the air!  It would have been nice if it was even remotely in the air yesterday for the Shamrock Run.  Despite it's absence, over 3500 showed up to run that hilly 4 miles with a temperature in the low 30's.  It really is inspiring to be out there running around with people of all ages, shapes and sizes on a not so pretty March day.  There are some pretty serious runners that finish the 4 miles in 20 minutes or so (I can't even imagine!) but there are a ton of people like myself who just do it for fun and to get a little exercise.
I know for many people (and I'm not much different), running 4 hilly miles does not sound even a little fun.  But you add the excitement of 3500 people, live bands around every corner, some pretty funny get ups on some of the runners and the prospect of a celebratory beer with your friends when it's all over, it's not so bad after all.  Last month I wrote a post, Mind Games , in which I explain my method of tricking myself into running by signing up for races that I should probably be able to complete when the day comes.  It works for me.  I've been hitting the streets as much as possible (weather permitting, I'm not a die hard) and I think it paid off.  My time improved a tad this year but I felt SO much better during and after the race compared to last year.  Don't get me wrong, I could think of nothing other than getting to the finish through the whole thing but I remembered along the way how I felt last year in some of those same spots.  I remembered how pissed I was when I saw the 2 mile mark.  Last year I thought "Are you bleep-ing kidding me??? Half way???".  This year I was like "Oh nice, I'm half way there!". 
So here I am gasping for air at the finish (I'm the one with the green ear band and grey sleeves).  You can see that I'm so committed to convincing people to add some activity to their lives that I'm willing to share this not so nice photo of myself.  If you are thinking- "I'm too old to start", I guarantee there were people older than you there.  If you are thinking- "I'm too out of shape", I'm willing to bet there were people of the same fitness level there.  "I'm too out of shape" is an excuse that drives me mad.  If you are a generally healthy person and plan ahead 3 months to do a race, and you work at it regularly you will be in better shape when that day comes and you will be able to finish a 5k.  Start by trying to walk either 3 miles (if you have the time) or for 30 min and see how far you get.  Try to beat your own time or distance each week or two.  It will be so worth your while to try.
Get a few friends to join you in the challenge, a little encouragement goes a long way.  Here I am with my friends Martha and Deb.  We've made it a tradition (this was the 2nd year for all of us) and we long the year when we aren't freezing our rumps off while toasting our accomplishment!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Food Groups

My two favorite food groups are Supper Club and Ladies Brunch.  You really can't beat getting together with good people to eat good food.  This past Sunday we did a combo "Brunch meets Supper" where the girls from Supper Club come to the Ladies Brunch.  The whole brunch meets supper is an appropriate name for this gathering considering its starts at noon and people usually make it home in time for dinner.  Brunch usually takes place about every 6 weeks or so and we rotate who hosts.  There are 5 of us regulars and it's a potluck set up.  I strongly encourage the formation of food groups.  Everyone is busy with kids, work, life in general and this is one day when we all get to catch up over a nice meal and a few cocktails on a Sunday afternoon.  We've been doing this for a few years now so the husbands know the drill.  We'll see you at dinner time.  You and the kids have a good day.  Buh Bye.  The food we had on Sunday was so lovely, I thought I should share.
I made this salad of arugula, radicchio, pears, parm and toasted almonds with a whole grain mustard vinaigrette.  I loved it but not everyone goes for the peppery bite of arugula.
I also made these Risotto Cakes with Fontina and scallions.  They are really delish next to that salad.
Kristin, a fellow brunch girl made this tomato and spinach pizza on whole wheat crust.  (Is it obvious I told them I'd be blogging about this-everything looked extra beautiful!)
Jen, a Supper Clubber, made this amazingly photogenic fruit salad.  It was a perfect way to balance out some of the heavier items and the fruit was surprisingly sweet and ripe (I say surprising because there are no fruits in season in this part of the world at this time of the year).
My sister, who is also a Supper Clubber made these Potato-Gruyere Tartlets.  They are a slice of yellow and slice of blue potato (photo inspired I'm sure) on puff pastry with caramelized onion, Gruyere and rosemary.  She'll have to remember this one for the Christmas party, they were great.
This tasty Spinach and Feta Strata was made by Heather.  She and I both belong to both food groups.  If you invited us to join yours, I'm sure we'd both come.  We do love our food groups.
I don't know what it was about these Black Bean Salad Lettuce Cups that I so loved, but I will definitely be on Melanie's case for this recipe.  I think this is my favorite thing she ever made for brunch.  Weird right? They were so fresh and tasty and I am on a bean kick lately.  It's a little odd for me but I'm going with it.  When she gives it to me I will certainly share.
Now just look at that spread.  We had coffee, Mimosa's and Mellissa was in charge of the Bloody Mary's since she doesn't particularly care for cooking.  She'd never make it in Supper Club (we go all out!), but that is for another day.
So gather your friends, set a table, eat, drink and be merry.  You'll be glad you did.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Weeknight Fancy

The other night I tried this really tasty chicken dish from Giada De Laurentis.  It even seemed a little, dare I say, fancy.  Not exactly a healthy meal, I'm pretty confident that if you went out and ordered something comparable in a restaurant you'd add at least a few hundred calories to your meal total.  You might have bread and butter while you wait for your server, perhaps you'd get a salad with too much dressing and then they'd serve a large portion that you'd want to eat too much of just because it's on your plate and tastes so darned good.  At home, you can skip the bread, limit your dressing, add a vegetable so you don't want as much entree and save some leftovers for tomorrow.  Oh, and this was pretty quick too.  Weeknight fancy, how about that?  The name of the game is Chicken with Mustard Mascarpone Marsala Sauce.  I made a couple of minor adjustments to the recipe (as usual).
Personally, I'm not a fan of mushrooms.  I do like the flavor they add to certain dishes but I really dislike the texture and the fact they they are fungus.  The original recipe calls for 1 pound of cremini mushrooms but I used an 8oz package which really was plenty. 
I cut the chicken into smaller pieces than instructed to speed up the cooking time.  The recipe advises you to cut it up after it's cooked anyway so do what what you like with that.
After you've browned your chicken on both sides you add some butter and onions and then mushrooms and garlic to the skillet.  You can get your pasta going while this is in the works.
After the shrooms cook for about 12 min or so, you add a cup of Marsala wine.  You might as well grab a bottle of wine for drinking while you're at it.  I'm thinking a nice red.
Once the Marsala reduces by half you add the mascarpone and mustard, the chicken and it's juices, a little parsley and salt and pepper.  Now that is looking really good and a little bit fancy don't you think?
Serve this up with a side of asparagus, broccoli or other green veg of choice.  A side salad wouldn't hurt either!

Chicken with Mustard Mascarpone Marsala Sauce
(adapted from Giada De Laurentis)

1 1/2- 2 lbs boneless chicken breast cut into 3 or more pieces
salt and fresh cracked black pepper
2 TBS olive oil
4 TBS butter, divided (I actually cut this down by a tbs!)
3/4 cup chopped onion
8oz (to a pound, you choose) cremini mushrooms, sliced
2 TBS minced garlic
1 cup dry Marsala wine
8oz mascarpone cheese
2 TBS Dijon mustard
2 TBS chopped fresh parsley
12 oz dried fettuccine

Season chicken with salt and pepper.  Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add chicken and cook just until brown on each side.  Transfer to a plate.

Melt 2 TBS butter in the same skillet (over med-high heat), add onions and saute until tender, about 2 min.  Add the mushrooms and garlic and saute until tender and juices evaporate, about 12 min.  Add the wine and simmer until it's reduced by half, about 4 min.  Stir in the mascarpone and mustard.  Cut chicken into slices (if you didn't cut into smaller pieces before cooking) and return to the the skillet along with any juices.  Simmer uncovered, over medium low heat until the chicken is cooked through and the sauce thickens slightly, about 3 min.  Stir in chopped parsley.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook fettuccine until al dente, 8-9 min.  Drain and toss with 2 TBS butter (you could probably get away with one, or maybe a little olive oil instead).  Season with salt and pepper.  Place pasta on the plate and top with chicken mixture and enjoy!

This makes 6 servings.  It was a hit with everyone.  Two of us picked around the mushrooms but Hayden decided that if you just mix them up with everything else, you hardly know they are there.  He is apparently braver than I.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Bulking Up

Well, bulking up can mean a couple of things.  I was referring to fiber.  Turns out, fiber is not just for old people.  Having enough fiber in your diet can lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes.  It assists in weight loss in that it keeps you feeling full longer because your body can't digest it (the whole thing is weird, I know, but there are a lot of smart people out there who study these things and know what they are talking about).  Here's the kicker,  women should shoot for over 20 grams per day and men should shoot for over 30.  Pay attention for a couple of days and I'll bet you're not quite meeting those goals.  The reason I bring this up is because Nelsy found this fabulous fibrous chard mix at the grocery store and I thought I should tell you about it. 
As far as I'm concerned the more variety in the veggie department the better.  It seems that myself and other members of this household have a strong aversion to kale (unless blended into a smoothie of course) so we welcome an alternative to the usual spinach. 
Just look how pretty it is.  I think I might add this to the garden this year and eat it more often.
It's not quite as pretty once its cooked (steamed with a little garlic and vegetable or chicken broth).  We had it along side pan seared haddock and salmon and rice.  Phoebe was not convinced that this is as good as spinach but hey, you can't win them all.  I had seconds if you must know.
Don't like it? Throw it in a smoothie! Talk about your fiber.  This is what I had with my coffee this morning.  You can see the bits of apple skins (more fiber).  I said it before and I'll say it again~ these taste WAY better than they look. I did a little looking around and found that two of my favorite foods have a ton of fiber.  Black beans have 15g per cup, and avocados have 10g (that's for the whole fruit but eating a half of an avocado on a salad is pretty easy to do).  Others to keep in mind are apples and pears (with skins), lentils, artichoke hearts and broccoli.  Of course there are many others but these came up as high on the bulk list.  So lets all eat some fiber and then I'll share my less heart healthy recipe for chicken with mustard marscapone marsala sauce.