Black and White Cookies - Holiday Style

Trying think outside of the usual holiday cookie box, I thought I would try one of my favorite treats this week. The black and white cookie is a NYC favorite and when done right it is a sweet and cake-like cookie that is perfect for dessert or with your afternoon tea. With a little food paste, I was able to jazz these up for the holidays and the result was not as cute as I would have hoped, but a fun alternative to the usual cut out Santa's and dry gingerbread. Easy to make and decorate, might be a good addition to your cookie tray this week.

Black and White Cookies
Adapted from Gourmet 2002
Makes about large 10 cookies

For Cookies:
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup well shaken buttermilk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 cup (5 1/3 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg

For Icing:
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
2 teaspoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
1 to 2 tablespoons water
1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
red and green food coloring or paste (if want to make festive)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. Stir together buttermilk and vanilla in a cup.

Beat together butter and sugar in a large bowl with electric mixer until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes, then add egg, beating until combined well. Mix in flour mixture and buttermilk mixture alternately in batches at low speed (scraping down sides of bowl occasionally), beginning and ending with flour mixture. Mix until smooth.

Spoon 1/4 cups of batter 2 inches apart onto a buttered large baking sheet. Tap down the batter to flatten the tops. Bake in middle of oven until tops are puffed and pale golden, and cookies spring back when touched, 15 to 17 minutes. Transfer with a metal spatula to a rack and cool completely.

Meanwhile, stir together confectioners sugar, corn syrup, lemon juice, vanilla, and 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl until smooth. Transfer half of the icing to another bowl and stir in the coca, adding more water, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, to thin to same consistency as white icing.

**If making festive: divide rest of white icing in two bowls. Add red and green food paste or coloring to desired color.

Once cookies are completely cool, turn cookies flat sides up, then spread the colored icing on half of each and chocolate over the other half.



Albondigas - Mexican Meatball Soup

I know, I have posted a lot of Mexican style soups to this blog. But I swear this one is different. I came up with the recipe after reading a few variations and the result was so full of flavor and different from traditional tortilla soups, that I had to share. The broth has a ton of body and bold flavor. And let's get serious, the meatball is having a moment and this soup let's it shine. With holiday cooking and snow on the way, this soup works perfect for nights in when you could use a break from the usual rich and sugary fare.  And though it packs some nutritional punch, it feels decadent and satisfying. Just the way I like my soup.

Albondigas - Mexican Meatball Soup
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 6

For the Meatballs:
1 egg
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup bread crumbs
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 lb ground beef
1/4 lb chorizo (ground pork if you cannot find, but add some spice if you use it)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all the ingredients, except the meat in a bowl. Add in the meat and gently incorporate the meat so that everything is well combined, but not over worked. Use hands or fork. Place heaping teaspoons of the mixture, gently rolled into balls, onto a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, until cooked through. Set aside.

For the Soup (can start making while meatballs cook):
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 Anaheim or other green chili variety, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
6 cups beef stock
2 cups crushed tomatoes
1 - 7oz can chipotle peppers, chopped (deseed if you do not like spice)
1 to 4 teaspoons adobo sauce from the can of chipotle peppers, depending how spicy you like it
2 carrots, grated
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grated zucchini
1/4 cup uncooked rice
juice of one lime
chopped fresh cilantro and grated cheese for garnish

Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium heat and sauté the onion, chili, garlic, oregano, and cumin until vegetables are soft. Add the stock, tomatoes, chipotle, adobo, carrots and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer for 20 minutes. Add the zucchini and rice and simmer for an additional 30 minutes, until rice is tender. Add in the meatballs and lime juice and heat through. Taste and adjust for seasoning (salt, pepper, more adobo, hot sauce?). Serve hot and garnish with the cilantro and cheese if desired.



Recipe Ideas for Your Thanksgiving

With Thanksgiving looming, I thought I would help you all out with a list of some easy sides that you can make for next week's festivities. Whether you are having a crowd at your house or want to make something to bring over, these all are delicious and a great dish to accompany your bird. 

For help on an entire menu that is very easy and you avoid having to make the whole bird, check out last year's post, Thanksgiving for Novices

I hope this is helpful and that you have a fantastic holiday! 



Chicken & Quinoa Casserole

I have started to really like the whole casserole concept. Anything that can come piping hot out of the oven, be considered a complete meal and be delicious really has a lot going for it. Before I was sold on casseroles, I imagined them all to be dated versions of what grandma used to make and not in a good way. I am relishing in the loveliness of left overs and casseroles can be made and eaten over several days. So if they are really delicious, I love how there is something great waiting for me each day for lunch with minimal effort. This recipe broke another stereotype of mine, that anything off a box or container could not possibly be very good. Wrong again. This super healthful and flavorful recipe was first spotted on the side of my chicken stock carton. It is adapted from Prevention magazine and I highly recommend it. It tastes a lot like Thanksgiving, but without the guilt. Which we will save for actual Thanksgiving.

Chicken & Quinoa Casserole 
serves 8

1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 cremini (or white) mushrooms, thinly sliced
2/3 cup cup acorn squash, large dice (about one small squash)
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lb ground chicken or turkey
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 cups quinoa (look by the grains or pasta in your market)
2 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup parsley, chopped
1 1/2 cup reduced fat Monterrey jack cheese, shredded

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a skillet, saute onion in olive oil on medium high heat for 5 minutes or until translucent.

Add mushrooms, squash and garlic and cook for 5 minutes. Add chicken, breaking into small pieced as it browns, about 5 minutes.

Add poultry seasoning, salt, pepper, stock and quinoa and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer ten minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in parsley and 1 cup of the cheese. Transfer ingredients from pan into 9 x 9 casserole dish or baking pan. Sprinkle remaining cheese on top of casserole and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.

Serve warm.



Chicken Tortilla Soup

I am super into one pot meals right now. Call it a crush, it is easy, makes extra for leftovers and always makes a satisfying meal at the end of the day. This recipe is a combination of a few that I have read and is easy to make your own from what you have in your fridge. The rich broth that is thickened with cheese is great spiked with spicy jalapenos and your favorite hot sauce. I use either a rotisserie chicken or roast a couple of chicken breasts in the oven (350 degrees, olive oil, salt, pepper, bake until cooked through, about 30 minutes) because I like the flavor. It is also a great way to use extra chicken you might have leftover from another meal. Although this makes a lot, it is addicting. So don't expect quite as much leftover as you may think.

Chicken Tortilla Soup
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 6

3 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder (chipotle if you have it)
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or hot sauce)
1 28 oz can diced tomatoes
4 jalapenos, deseeded and minced
1 bell pepper, diced (I like red or yellow, but use what you like)
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
salt and pepper to taste
1 15oz can black beans, rinsed and drained
2 cups frozen corn
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 cooked, skinless chicken breasts, diced
8 oz. cotija cheese, crumbled (sub Parmesan or more pepper jack if not available)
8 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded and divided
1 cup cilantro, chopped
tortilla chips, crumbled

In a large dutch oven or pot, add the stock, spices, tomatoes, jalapenos, bell pepper, onion and garlic. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Salt and pepper to taste, simmer about 30 minutes until tomatoes begin to break down.

Add black beans, corn, tomato paste and chicken and stir to incorporate. Add cotija cheese and half the pepper jack and stir to melt. Cook about 20 more minutes until soup has thickened.

Add half the cilantro and taste for seasoning. Adjust if needed. Serve in bowls topped with more pepper jack, cilantro and tortilla chips.



Pumpkin Cupcakes

Everyone looks forward to those familiar Fall flavors that pop up around October and are found in everything from your morning coffee to your mid-week DQ run (or is that just me?). These pumpkin cupcakes are a variation on my favorite pumpkin bread recipe that I shared previously. I make a few batches and send off to friends once a year, then enjoy a couple of loafs myself. I thought I would try making a dessert out of the recipe and the results were delicious. An easy way to upgrade your cupcakes this Fall and add some spice to your dessert options at home.

Pumpkin Cupcakes
Forks & Amusement 2011
makes 2 dozen cupcakes

2 cups sugar
1 cup brown sugar, packed
2 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon each nutmeg, cinnamon, ground cloves
4 eggs beaten
1 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup cold water
1-15oz can pumpkin

4 cups powdered sugar
16 oz cream cheese (room temperature)
2 sticks of butter (room temperature)
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven 350 degrees. Line two muffin tins with cupcake molds.

Sift dry ingredients in a large bowl. Combine the wet ingredients well in a separate bowl. Fold dry ingredients into the wet, mix until smooth.

Pour batter into each mold about three quarters way full.

Bake 30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven and set on wire rack to cool. Once able to handle, remove from pan and let cool completely on rack.

Meanwhile, beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add the vanilla to combine. Then add the sugar in batches so you will not make a mess. Mix until well combined.

Frost each cupcake with a dollop of frosting and serve at room temperature. Can be made the day before, but cover in an air tight container.



Steak Caesar Salad

Sometimes making a salad for dinner can sound so boring and not great. Salads are for lunches and first dates, right? (for the record, I never ordered just a salad on any date, ever)

I am trying to, at least once in awhile, stray from carbs at night when I am feeling extra well fed. Especially after long weekends of lounging and great meals.

This Caesar was the perfect way to curb a large, after work appetite and stay on a healthy kick. By adding steak to the salad, you are getting lots of protein and some fat to keep you satisfied. Plus, this punchy lightened-up dressing is a far cry from the globby, calorie laden dressings that you find at most restaurants. It is very lemon-y, so if you do not like things tart, lay off the lemon a bit. But, the tartness is perfect matched with the rich steak. Anyone can put this dinner together in less than 30 minutes and it will not feel like "just a salad."

Steak Caesar Salad
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

For Steak:
1 pound New York strip
olive oil, salt and pepper

For Dressing:
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 garlic cloves
1 tablespoon Worchestire sauce
3 tablespoons chicken stock
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese

To serve:
2 hearts of romaine, chopped
grated Parmesan cheese
freshly ground pepper

Heat grill or grill pan to medium-high heat. Brush steak with olive oil and season with salt and pepper generously. Grill on each side for 3 minutes for medium-rare, more if you like it more well done. Remove from grill and let rest for 10 minutes. Slice thin.

Meanwhile, combine all the ingredients for the dressing, except the cheese, in a blender or food processor. Process to combine well and until smooth. Add the cheese and pulse to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Toss and coat the lettuce with the dressing (you will not use all of it). Place the lettuce among the plates, top with slices of steak, sprinkle with grated Parmesan and freshly ground pepper.



Ragu alla Bolognese

The comfort of a bowl of rich tomato sauce and pasta is hard to beat. Pasta is hands down my favorite comfort food and a great tomato sauce comes in at a close second. I am always trying new recipes to match the dreamy, thick and luscious sauces in Italy. When it gets colder, I especially love a great bolognese and this recipe is hands down the best I have ever made at home. I wish I could take credit for this amazing sauce, but it is from one of my favorite cook books Cristina's Tuscan Table. If you love rustic and authentic Italian, buy this book. As for the sauce, you could eat a bowl of it all on its lonesome with some toasted bread. I chose to serve it over fresh linguine, but you could also use it in a lasagna, or serve over soft polenta. Any of those options will be delicious.

Ragu alla Bolognese
Cristina's Tuscan Table, 2007
makes 1 gallon (freezes great and feel free to half or quarter the recipe, cooking times will be shorter)

3 pounds ground beef
1 pound ground lean pork
3 1/4 cups red wine, divided
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, minced*
1 large carrot minced*
2 stalks celery, minced*
3 cloves garlic, minced *Note: to save time, mince the veggies in the food processor
1 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 cup diced pancetta (about 1/2 pound)
salt and pepper to taste
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons tomato paste
18 cups canned tomato puree (I used crushed), about 5- 28 oz cans
pinch of hot red pepper flakes

In a bowl, marinate the beef and pork in 1 3/4 cups wine and refrigerate at least 3 hours.

In a large soup pot, heat the olive oil. Add the minced onion, carrot, celery, garlic, and parsley and saute over medium high heat until onions are soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.

Add the marinated meat, pancetta, salt and pepper. Cook uncovered, stirring with a wooden spoon until meat is browned, about 30 minutes.

Add remaining 1 1/2 cups wine and stir, scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the bay leaves and tomato paste, and cook 2 more minutes. Stir in the tomato puree and red pepper flakes, and simmer, covered, for 2 hours. Salt and pepper to taste.



Tomato Soup

Everyone needs an easy tomato soup recipe for comforting nights in and easy lunches to go. I knew it was the perfect opportunity to make my basic recipe after I hauled back a large sourdough home from San Francisco. Yep, I was that person. And I am so glad I did because it made amazing grilled cheese to go with my soup. I call this recipe basic as it has no real surprises to it, but that does not take away from how delicious it is. Unlike many tomato soups with heavy cream, I have added half and half. It gives you that hint of creaminess, without all the guilt. A tip for your grilled cheese is to use a panini press, but if you do not have one, a plate and a kettle full of water pressing down on each sandwich will do just as well. I have eaten this meal three times already, my sourdough is almost gone and I know I should have made more tomato soup to freeze. Best thing is, this is so easy to make I might just repeat it tomorrow.

Tomato Soup
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 6-8

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
salt and pepper
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
crushed red pepper to taste (optional if you like a bit of heat)
2-48oz cans diced tomatoes
2 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup half and half
5 large basil leaves, chopped

Place a large pot on the stove over medium heat. Add the oil and once hot add the onion and carrot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and sweat until onions are translucent and carrots soften, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and crushed red pepper, stir and cook for 1 minute. Add in the tomatoes with their juices and the chicken stock. Season with salt and pepper generously and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off heat and allow to cool slightly.

If you have an emersion blender, blend soup in the pot. If not, place small amounts of the soup in a blender and puree to desired consistency (I like a little chunky, but go as smooth as you like it). **Be careful not to overfill blender and to let the soup cool a bit. Otherwise you will have tomato soup all over your kitchen, trust me I did it** Return soup back to pot once it has all been pureed.

Warm soup up if needed, add in the half and half and 3/4 of the basil. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve warm with a bit more basil sprinkled on top.



Crispy Chicken with Lemon Vinaigrette

I have not been a great cook lately. My creativity has been shot and I have been tucking into staples that I have already posted. Nothing wrong with that, but I have been keeping all of you hungry for more! This chicken recipe is one of my favorite dinners and I have made it a lot over the last month. Now that the weather is colder, I could not be more excited to start cooking soup and one-pot meals that I hope to share with you soon. If you have anything to spark my cooking, I would love to hear from you! 

Crispy Chicken with Lemon Vinaigrette
Serves 4
4 chicken breasts (about 2 lbs.) pounded to 1/2-inch thick between two pieces of parchment or wax paper
1/4 cup flour
2 eggs beaten lightly
2 cups panko bread crumbs (or any other breadcrumbs)
Salt and pepper
Crushed red pepper (optional)
1 Tbsp. butter
1 shallot, minced (garlic is a good sub if you have it)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Juice of 1 lemon (about 1/4 cup)
1 Tbsp. plus 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil divided
6 cups mixed greens
1 cup chopped tomatoes (I like grape or Campari)
Set up three dishes in a row and a platter at the end. Place the flour in the first dish, the eggs in the second and the breadcrumbs in the third. Season all the plates with salt and pepper, add crushed rep pepper to the breadcrumbs if you like some heat.
Using tongs or your hands, dredge both sides of one of the chicken breasts in the flour to coat, shaking off the excess. Place in the egg and coat both sides, then place in the breadcrumbs and coat well on both sides. Press down and even use your hands to fill in any holes. Place on platter. Repeat with each chicken breast and place in fridge for 15 minutes up to an hour.
Warm the oven. Place a large skillet over medium heat and add the butter and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Heat the pan until the butter just starts to turn brown. Place chicken in the pan, do not overcrowd, you can do it in batches. Cook on both sides until crisp and cooked through, about 10 minutes. Place in the oven to keep warm and repeat with remaining chicken.
Meanwhile, whisk together the shallot, mustard and lemon juice. Salt and pepper to taste, then whisk in the oil. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Pour in the bottom of a large bowl and place the greens and tomatoes on top.
To serve, toss the salad to coat with the vinaigrette. Place a chicken breast on each plate and mound the salad on top. Serve immediately.


Hash Brown Casserole

You have most likely enjoyed this delicious brunch treat sometime, someplace. Maybe your grandmother always made it for Christmas morning or it was a side at the last shower you attended. If you have not had it or a version of it, you are missing out. Not usually a casserole girl, I tried out a variation of a bunch of hash brown recipes for breakfast with a large crowd. What I thought would just be a crowd pleaser ended up the star of the show and completely devoured in no time flat. The dish is rich, easy to prepare and has some pretty classic casserole ingredients. It will never make my "health food" tags, but I enjoyed every last bite. I served it with scrambled eggs and fruit salad. The only drawback of the breakfast was there were no leftovers. Might have to make a mini version this weekend.

Hash Brown Casserole
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 12 (you can half the recipe and use a small dish)

2 lbs frozen shredded hash brown potatoes, unthawed
1 10.75 oz can cream of celery soup
3 cups (packed) grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 12 oz)
1 cup sour cream
1 cup finely chopped onion
a few shakes of hot sauce (optional)
1 cup slightly crushed corn flakes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine first 6 ingredients in a large bowl. Transfer to a 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Bake until top is slightly golden, about one hour ten minutes. Sprinkle with corn flakes. Bake until golden brown, about 5 minutes.



Roasted Vegetable Caprese Salad

Everyone loves a caprese salad and summertime is the perfect time to enjoy it. Fresh tomatoes, basil and creamy mozzarella is a combination that never gets old. I wanted to try a bit of twist on this classic dish by using the grill and some different vegetables. By switching up the flavors a bit, you can give your guests something unexpected and just as delicious as the classic. This is a great start to an al fresco dinner with friends and I promise it will all be eaten right up.

Roasted Vegetable Caprese Salad
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

3 red bell peppers, cut in thick slices, about 2 1/2 inch wide
4 whole yellow squashes, sliced 1/4 inch thick
2 onions, sliced 1/2 inch thick
1/2 lb fresh mozzarella (about 2 large balls), sliced
1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
extra virgin olive oil
balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Preheat grill or grill pan to medium heat.

Place the cut vegetables in a dish and toss to coat with olive oil, salt and pepper. Grill vegetables on both sides until tender and beginning to char. About 10 minutes. Note: Depending on thickness, some vegetables might be done before others. Remove when done.

Allow vegetables to cool in the fridge slightly. Arrange vegetables on large platter, tuck in mozzarella to the vegetables and sprinkle with the basil. Drizzle olive oil, vinegar and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Serve at room temperature.



Orzo Salad with Oranges and Red Wine Vinaigrette

Orzo has become my summer obsession and it has become a bit of a problem. Mostly because I run out of it right when I want to make it again. I have resorted to buying it in bulk so I never am without it. The best part about orzo is that you can add pretty much anything to it. Leftover anything, chopped up, tossed with orzo, trust me it works. I had posted a similar recipe to this with these lamb burgers, but wanted to give you a more precise recipe. Citrus in summer is classic and refreshing. Paired with the tartness of this vinaigrette, some crisp celery, and the zing of red onion it equals a great side to any barbecue. Best part is that you can get great oranges year round, so feel free to punch up your winter with this salad.

Orzo Salad with Oranges and Red Wine Vinaigrette
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 10-12

4 cups orzo
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 cup olive oil
salt and pepper
5 oranges, cut rind completely off and cut into segments, reserving any extra juice (squeeze membranes)
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
6 celery stalks, chopped

Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil. Cook orzo to package instructions, drain and set aside.

In a large bowl, add the Dijon, garlic, red wine vinegar, and honey. Whisk to combine. Slowly stream in the olive oil while whisking and combine all the ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add oranges and juice to the bowl, along with the onion and celery. Toss in the vinaigrette. Add the orzo and toss everything well to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve at room temperature.

Make Ahead: Can be made up to 2 days before serving. Toss often and taste to adjust for salt and pepper.



Lazy Texas Brisket with Homemade BBQ Sauce

Some recipes make your entertaining life so easy. My amazing mother has been feeding the masses for as long as I can remember and recipes from her have made my party planning much easier. She has an eye for recipes that can be done in advance and do not need a lot of work once the company has arrived. While the collection is vast and covers all occasions, I gravitate towards this delicious crowd pleaser for casual summer nights. The meat is fool proof and the BBQ sauce is unlike any I have had before, even though it contains classic ingredients. It has a great tang that works great on chicken as well. I always make a double recipe so there is extra for other nights. Served with some rolls and a salad, you will be the star of the night. It can be our little secret that it took so little work.

Lazy Texas Brisket
Bon Appetit, August 1982
12 servings

1 large garlic clove, minced
1 4 to 5 pound beef brisket
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried sage, crumbled
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper ( I used flakes)
1/4 a teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Broncbuster's Barbecue Sauce (recipe below)

Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Rub garlic into both sides of brisket. Combine remaining seasonings in a small bowl and mix well. Rub into brisket. Set brisket fat side up on a large piece of foil and wrap tightly. Transfer to shallow roasting pan. Bake until tender, about 8 hours. Serve hot or cold with sauce.

Broncbuster's Barbecue Sauce
Bon Appetit, August 1982
makes 2 cups

2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup prepared chili sauce
1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon molasses
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1/2 teaspoon paprika

Melt butter in large skillet over medium low heat. Add onion. Cover and cook until translucent, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Blend in remaining ingredients. Bring sauce to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently, uncovered, 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve at room temperature.



Strawberry Glazed Cupcakes

I love shortcuts, especially when it comes to desserts. Since I not much of a baker, anything that can make it easier and fool-proof is great. But, I certainly would never want to take any short cuts that would sacrifice the taste. When I saw this recipe from Giada, I could taste the sweet glaze and was loving the short ingredient list. Glazing is something we usually see on donuts, but may I say that it works just as well these fluffy, incredibly moist cakes. Plus, the pink color and sheen is so pretty and light. In this cupcake-crazy world, it is fun to switch it up and try a new topping. I promise you will love the outcome.

Mascarpone Cupcakes with Strawberry Glaze
Giada's Kitchen by Giada Delaurentiis
makes 48 mini cupcakes or 24 regular sized

8 oz. mascarpone cheese, at room temperature (in dairy case by the cream cheese and ricotta)
2 egg whites
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 box white cake mix
1/3 cup frozen strawberries, thawed and drained
2 1/2 cups confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line 4 mini muffin tins or 2 regular muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large bowl, combine the mascarpone, egg whites, and vegetable oil. Using a hand mixer, beat the ingredients until combined and creamy. Add the cake mix and 1 cup water and mix until smooth, about 3 minutes. Fill the muffin liners to just below the rim and bake until puffed and golden, 18 to 20 minutes for mini, 23-25 minutes for regular sized. Remove from the oven, let cool slightly in the tins, then transfer the cupcakes to a wire rack to cool completely.

Meanwhile, puree the strawberries in a blender or small food processor. Sift the confectioners' sugar and place in a medium bowl. Pour in the strawberry puree and whisk until smooth. Dip the tops of the cooled cupcakes into the strawberry glaze. Let the cupcakes sit for a few minutes for the glaze to firm up, then serve.



Kale with Feta & Peppers

In an effort to mix up the usual vegetables around here, I bought kale for the first time. It sat in the fridge and stared and me for a few days as I tried to figure out what to do with it. After a long day and a glass of wine, I figured it was time to get after it. The entire recipe came from items I had on hand and although I can say kale is not best tasting vegetable on the planet, it certainly makes up for it by being super nutritious. Cook kale much like you do spinach if you have a favorite recipe. Since I like greens to have tons of flavor I added a lot of spice, but I included substitutes in case you prefer it mild.

Kale with Feta & Peppers
Forks & Amusement 2011
makes 4 sides

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 bunches kale, stems cut out, roughly chopped, washed, patted dry
salt and pepper
2 pickled cherry peppers, deseeded and sliced (use roasted red peppers if you don't like the heat)
1/3 cup crumbled feta

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Add the garlic and cook 30 seconds, until fragrant (do not burn!). Add the kale and cook, stirring and turning the leaves every minute or so, until cooked down and tender, about 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and the peppers. Toss to combine and heated through. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle the feta on top.



Turkey Burgers with Grilled Avocado, Red Onion & Smoked Mozzarella

In an effort to keep things light in the house, I have been working on a turkey burger recipe since the weather warmed up. Turkey burgers can be unbelievably bland. If you have had one bursting with flavor in a restaurant, there is no doubt they have added some calorie laden ingredients to do so. I put together some simple ingredients to spice it up and decided to try grilling some avocados. Which by the way, are officially my new favorite way to prepare them. You could really use any cheese you like, but the smoked  mozzarella gives the turkey a bit more heft and some more of that BBQ flavor. I served it bun less because I forgot to get them, but feel free to pile it up on a whole wheat bun to keep it healthy.

Turkey Burgers with Grilled Avocado, Red Onion & Smoked Mozzarella
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

1/4 cup light mayonnaise
1/4 cup bread crumbs
4 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
hot sauce to taste
3 scallions, trimmed and chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 lb ground turkey (I like to get half white and half dark if available)
1 avocado quartered and peeled
1/2 red onion sliced
olive oil
4 slices smoked mozzarella
8 hearts of romaine lettuce leaves

Heat grill or grill pan to medium high.

In a bowl, combine the first 5 ingredients. Add salt and pepper to taste. Be generous! Add the turkey and mix to combine well.

Brush avocado and onion with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

Grill burgers until cooked through on both sides, about 15 minutes depending on grill. Place mozzarella slices on top for last 5 minutes.

While the burgers cook, grill the avocado and onion slices on all sides until they are tender and have deep grill marks.

Serve each burger on 2 lettuce leafs, top with an avocado quarter and a slice of onion.



Watermelon Granita

Watermelon has to be the best summer treat. All on its lonesome, it is the best dessert when eaten outside, bitten straight from the rind, and running down your cheek. And though that works great for me, sometimes you need a bit more refinement when it comes to a sweet treat for guests. When I saw this 3 ingredient dessert recipe, I knew I had found my new summer entertaining dessert. This Italian ice treat is fruit, sugar, and lime juice. It is such a great way to use that giant watermelon that made its way into your cart and now has still not been eaten days later. Serve it in a beautiful glass dish and you will wow your guests with flavor and refreshment. Maybe drizzle a shot of vodka on top to make it an adult slushy. It would also be perfect served in paper cones to the little ones. Plus, you can make it up to 3 days before and store until ready. You have got to love the make ahead.

Watermelon Granita
Bon Appetit June 2011
serves 6

4 cups (1 3/4 lb) cubed seedless watermelon
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice

Puree all the ingredients in a blender until smooth. Pour into a 9x9x2" metal baking pan. Freeze* mixture for 1 hour. Stir, mashing any frozen parts with the back of a fork. Cover and freeze mixture until firm, about 2 hours. Using a fork, scrape granita vigorously to form icy flakes.

Do Ahead: Can be made 3 days ahead. Cover tightly with foil and keep frozen. Give it a quick scrape before serving.

*Note: As soon as you put your base in the freezer, SET A TIMER FOR 60 MINUTES. If you do not do this, you will forget, resulting in a solid block that's tough to scrape.



Roasted Chicken with Prosciutto, Provolone, & Spinach

Some of the best recipes come from quick tips or ideas from friends. There are endless possibilities on what to make for dinner, yet we have all felt stumped when trying to come up with the next menu. When people share something that they have made and loved, I try to take note and attempt it at home. Which is exactly what I tried to do with this recipe and it was delicious. You can make this chicken a million different ways and utilize what you might already have in your fridge. The cheese options are endless, any vegetable would most likely work, and instead of prosciutto, try salami or pepperoni. Yet another way to change up your chicken routine and it's delicious.

Roasted Chicken with Prosciutto, Provolone, & Spinach
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded to about 1/4 inch thick
8 slices provolone cheese
4 slices prosciutto, thin
1 cup fresh spinach leaves
8 hot cherry peppers, deseeded and sliced (optional if you like heat)
1 cup panko bread crumbs (in Asian food section, or you can use Italian style)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
cooking spray, like Pam

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Place a cooling rack inside a large baking sheet.

Lay out chicken breasts and layer the toppings in this order on each breast: 2 slices provolone, 1 slice prosciutto, 1/4 of the spinach leaves, 1/4 of the peppers (if using).

Place the bread crumbs and the egg in separate flat dishes. Roll each breast up tightly, keeping ingredients inside. Roll in the egg to coat, then roll in the bread crumbs to coat. Place seam side down on the cooling rack in the baking sheet. Repeat with each breast.

Spray each with cooking spray all over and bake for 30-45 minutes (depending on size of breast) until cooked through. Place under the broiler for last 5 minutes to brown. Serve warm.



Spicy Sesame Noodles

These noodles are a strong food memory for me. The first time I can remember eating them was probably when I was four or five. I think we were at an outdoor picnic/concert that involved John Denver and a backdrop of the Rocky Mountains. As insane as that sounds, for 1985 in Denver, that was pretty hip. My mom has this recipe on heavy rotation for summer entertaining and they have always been one of my favorites. I made them this past weekend for a BBQ and as always they were enjoyed. I make a couple versions of this that are a bit healthier, but wanted to share the tried and true recipe from The Silver Palate cookbook because it is absolutely the best. I served them with these Vietnamese style Banh Mi Burgers that are incredible. Not your average BBQ and a hard sell, once tried by everyone they realized that regular cheeseburgers are great, but Banh Mi is so much  better. I highly recommend both of these recipes for your next outdoor dinner.

Spicy Sesame Noodles
The Silver Palate Cookbook
serves 6

1 lb thin linguine or other thin pasta
1/4 cup peanut oil
2 cups sesame mayonnaise (recipe follows)
drops of Szechuan hot chili oil to taste (look for it in the Asian food section)
8 scallions, trimmed, well rinsed, and cut diagonally into 1/2 inch pieces
Blanched asparagus tips, broccoli florets, or snow peas, for garnish (optional)

1. Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot. Drop the linguine and cook until tender, but still firm. Drain toss in a mixing bowl with the peanut oil, and let cool to room temperature.

2. Whisk together the sesame mayonnaise and drops of the chili oil, to taste, in a small bowl. Do not hesitate to make it quite spicy; the noodles will absorb a lot of heat.

3. Add the scallions to the pasta, pour in the sesame mayonnaise, and toss gently. Cover and refrigerate until serving time. (Better if made day before or longer)

4. Toss the noddles again and add additional sesame mayonnaise if they seem dry. Arrange in a serving bowl and garnish with the asparagus, broccoli, or snow peas. Serve at room temperature (preferred) or cold.

Sesame Mayonnaise
makes 3 1/2 cups

1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
2 1/2 tablespoons rice vinegar (in Asian food section of market)
2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1/4 cup dark sesame oil (in Asian food section of market)
2 1/2 cups of corn oil (I used vegetable)
Szechuan style hot chili oil (optional, in Asian food section of market)

1. In a food processor or blender, process the whole egg, egg yolks, vinegar, soy sauce, and mustard for 1 minute.

2. With the motor still running, dribble in the sesame oil and then the corn oil in a slow, steady stream.

3. Season with drops of the chili oil if you use it, and scrape the mayonnaise into a bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Note: This is a great dip for crudite, served over steamed asparagus, or as a salad dressing as well.



Caprese Spaghetti

Sometimes the simplest of dishes are by far the best. This pasta is one of them. Just a few familiar ingredients and you have a delicious dinner. I thought of this recipe as I walked past the beyond fragrant basil plants for sale in the market. Caprese salad is one of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh basil and summer tomatoes. Mozzarella, tomato, and basil is so classic you can use these flavors in anything. Crostini, salads, sandwiches, pizza, it all works. I also came across fresh pasta, which I never buy and it truly blew my mind. As an avid pasta eater, there is no going back now.

Caprese Spaghetti
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

1/4 cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper (more if you like heat)
10 Campari tomatoes or 20 cherry tomatoes or 3 large tomatoes, roughly chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
salt and pepper to taste
1 lb fresh spaghetti (in refrigerated food aisle, or use dried pasta)
1/2 lb fresh mozzarella, small cubes
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

Place a skillet over medium high heat and add the oil. Once hot, add the garlic and red pepper, cook for 30 seconds until fragrant. Add the tomatoes,wine, salt and pepper, and bring to boil. Turn heat to medium low and cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half and tomatoes are broken down, about 8-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook pasta until al dente (not quite cooked all the way through, still has a bite to it). Then add it and 1/2 cup of the pasta water to the skillet. Turn heat up to medium high and combine well until pasta has soaked up the sauce, about 2 minutes.

Turn off heat. Toss in mozzarella and 1/2 the basil and combine well. Transfer to a large serving bowl and sprinkle remaining basil on top.

Serve immediately.



Grilled Potato Salad

I am experimenting a lot this summer when it comes to the grill as I am on a mission to try to grill everything. Obviously I am no pioneer, but stretching my culinary inventiveness can only make me a better cook and give me more to share. I have always grilled tons of vegetables. Any and all, a little olive oil, salt, pepper and you can serve them with anything. I was making burgers for dinner the other night and thought about how to make a better potato salad. Not one to shy away from any side, I thought I could make potato salad a little differently and healthfully. This only has a few ingredients, but has great flavors, and the delicious char that only the grill can give you. It is tangy, a little sweet, and the potatoes provide the creaminess instead of hundreds of calories of mayo. So far the inventiveness is paying off.

Grilled Potato Salad
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 6

12 red medium potatoes, halved
2 red bell peppers, cut in quarters
5 scallions
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
salt and pepper
2 shallots or garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar or any white vinegar
2 teaspoons honey
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs like chive, thyme, or cilantro

Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Add the potatoes and cook for 15-20 minutes, until just tender. Drain.

Heat grill to medium-high heat.

Brush the potatoes, bell peppers, and scallions all over with oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Add potatoes to the grill, cut side down, and grill for 6 minutes. Add the peppers and scallions and cook for an additional 6 minutes, turning once. Potatoes should be tender, but not mushy. Remove from grill to cool.

In a small bowl, whisk together the shallot, mustard, vinegar, honey, and salt and pepper to taste. While whisking, stream in 2 tablespoons of olive oil to combine. Taste and adjust for seasoning.

Once vegetables are cool enough to handle, cut the heads off the scallions and roughly chop. Cut potatoes in quarters and roughly chop the peppers. Combine in a serving bowl and pour dressing over. Toss to combine well. Top with fresh herbs. Serve warm or room temperature.



Grilled Pork Chops with Rosemary & Fig Onion Compote

It is great to be outside using the grill almost every night. It makes making dinner so easy and clean up much faster. What is great is most proteins taste great when grilled with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. But, to make it more flavorful and interesting, it is nice to make something that brings it to a different level. This caramelized onion compote is so delicious with the pork chops. It is sweet, savory, and requires little work. Pork usually calls for something on the sweet side to enhance the flavor, but I don't like anything too fruity. I saw these fig preserves at the market and knew it would be delicious with some balsamic and rosemary. You could also make the onions and use to top crostini, pizza, flatbread, or even a burger. Such a delicious way to start a (hopefully) beautiful summer.

Grilled Pork Chops with Rosemary & Fig Compote
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

3 large onions, sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup fig preserves, like Bonne Maman (you could use orange or apricot as well)
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons freshly chopped rosemary, plus some for garnish
crushed red pepper to taste
salt and pepper
4 tablespoons Dijon mustard
4 pork chops (I prefer the bone in loin chops, so much flavor)

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, once hot add in the onions. Toss with the oil to coat and cook, stirring frequently, until just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Add in the preserves, balsamic, rosemary, crushed red pepper, and salt and pepper to taste. Combine well ad bring to a boil. Turn heat down to medium-low and cook, stirring and scraping bottom occasionally, until onions are very tender and caramelized, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a grill or grill pan over high heat. Brush pork chops with the mustard and season generously with salt and pepper. Grill chops on both sides until thermometer registers 150 degrees, about 8-10 minutes per side depending on thickness of chops. Let meat rest for 5 minutes.

Serve each chop with a generously helping of the onion compote on top. Serve immediately.



Diet Mac & Cheese

As you have noticed on every restaurant menu on the planet, macaroni and cheese has graduated from a box to a high brow side dish filled with beautiful cheeses and in season ingredients. Never one to pass it up on the menu, I have sampled many. Whether it is truffle, bacon, or chipotle, they all are indulgent, rich and the perfect side to share. What I try not to do is eat it all the time, not eat the entire dish (although so very hard) and forget the hundreds, possibly thousands of calories involved. But there is always a time to indulge and always a time to enjoy a fantastic restaurant version. I came across this lower calorie recipe in Rocco DiSpirito's new cookbook and thought I would give it a try. Now this is not the dish you would be ordering for a night out at your favorite bistro. It won't hold a candle to the truffle mac at the new gastropub. What it is a lower calorie stand in should you be watching your diet or are just looking to get your fix at home. This is also great for kids who have mac and cheese on heavy rotation. The portion size is laughable, so I doubled it and it is still only 440 calories a serving. I also used Barilla Plus, as I prefer that pasta over whole wheat.

Macaroni and Cheese with a Crusty Crunch
Adapted from Now Eat This! by Rocco DiSpirito
makes 4 side servings

Nonstick Cooking Spray
8 oz whole wheat elbow macaroni
1 cup onion-garlic puree (see instructions below)
1 teaspoon dry mustard
2 pinches of cayenne pepper
2 cup shredded 50% reduced fat cheddar, such as Cabot
2/3 cup nonfat greek yogurt (I used 2%)
salt and pepper
1/2 cup whole wheat panko breadcrumbs (I used regular as I had it in the pantry)
1/2  cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Onion-Garlic Puree: Roughly chop 1 large onion, plus 9 garlic cloves. Place in bowl with 1/2 cup of water. Microwave on high for 10 minutes. Process until smooth in blender, food processor or mini chopper. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Spray a 8x8 or larger baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.

2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the macaroni and cook according to the package directions, 7 to 9 minutes; drain.

3. While the pasta is cooking, bring the onion-garlic puree, mustard and cayenne to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring often. Whisk in the cheddar until it has melted. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the yogurt.

4. In a medium bowl, toss the cooked macaroni with the cheese sauce to coat thoroughly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour the macaroni into the prepared baking dish, and sprinkle the panko over the top. Top with the parmesan cheese.

5. Bake until cheese has melted and the macaroni is hot throughout, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.



Greek Grilled Chicken and Lemon Couscous

As much as this blog makes it seem otherwise, I eat out a lot. Cooking is something that I love, but do not force on myself when not in the mood. One place that is always on the favorites list is Rockit in Chicago. It is a staple for me and all of my friends, so I have tried pretty much everything on the menu. One dish that is ordered for dinner frequently, and usually by more than one person in the party, is the Chicken Paillard. It is flattened chicken with a cucumber, tomato and feta salad. It is fresh, healthy and delicious. I wanted to take a stab at making a homemade version and came up with this. It was delicious and will most certainly be on summer rotation. I served it with warm pita and the tzatziki from this post.

Greek Grilled Chicken with Lemon Couscous
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

1 1/3 cup whole wheat couscous (in the rice section of the market)
2 cups chicken stock or water
salt and pepper
juice of one lemon
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
1 minced shallot or garlic clove
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tomatoes, deseeded and diced
2 cucumbers, deseeded and diced
1/2 cup sliced peperoncini (optional)
1/2 cup crumbled feta
2 lbs. thinly sliced chicken breasts (one of my fave new market finds) or 4 breasts pounded thinly

In a small sauce pan, bring the stock or water to boil. Place the couscous in a heat safe bowl and pour the stock over it. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let sit for 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork, season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. Set aside in fridge or freezer to cool. (Can be made in advance)

Preheat grill or grill pan to medium-high heat.

In a large bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, oregano, and shallot. Slowly add the oil while whisking until well combined.

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Grill on each side for a few minutes until cooked through.

Toss tomatoes, cucumbers, peperoncini, and feta in bowl with vinaigrette. To serve, place a mound of couscous on each plate, place chicken on top, then layer the tomato and cucumber salad.



Tuscan Lemon Chicken

There are some ingredients that I really can't live without. And I am not talking about the basics like olive oil or salt, I mean the ingredients that I go to multiple times in a week and can't resist on any menu. This recipe has 2 of them, rosemary and lemon. Ah, lemon. It is basically a miracle worker in the kitchen. Anything you make that is missing something that is not salt or pepper, add lemon and it will be cured. Seriously, every great recipe has some tartness to it and lemon is the best way to get it. What I like about lemon in this recipe is that you take it to a whole different level but grilling the halves. I wish I could take credit for this, but it comes from the Barefoot Contessa, who is a master at using lemon. She loves it like I do and that is why her cookbooks are always splayed open in my kitchen.

Tuscan Lemon Chicken
Barefoot Contessa Back to Basics, Ina Garten 2008
serves 2 or 3

1 (3 1/2 pound) chicken, flattened*
Kosher salt
1/3 cup good olive oil
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest (2 lemons)
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
1 tablespoon minced rosemary leaves
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, halved

Sprinkle the chicken with 1 teaspoon salt on each side.

Combine the olive oil, lemon zest, lemon juice, garlic, rosemary, and 1 teaspoon pepper in a ceramic or glass dish just large enough to hold the flattened chicken. Add the chicken, and turn to coat. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight, turning once or twice.

When ready to grill, prepare a hot charcoal fire on one side of the grill (or turn a gas grill on low heat). Spread 1/4 of the coals across the other side of the grill. Place the chicken on the cooler side skin side up, and weight it down with the dish you used for marinating (pour off the marinade into a small saucepan). Cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until the underside is golden brown.

Place saucepan with marinade on the stove, bring to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Keep warm.

Turn the chicken skin side down, weight again with the dish, and cook another 12 to 15 minutes, until the skin is golden brown and the chicken is cooked through. Place the lemon halves on the grill for the last 10 minutes of cooking.

Remove the chicken to a plate or cutting board, cover with aluminum foil, and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Cut the chicken in quarters, sprinkle generously with salt, and serve with the grilled lemon halves and cooked marinade.

*Stand the chicken upright and cut the backbone with a large kitchen knife. Spread the chicken open on a board with the skin side down. Cut around and remove the breast bone with a boning knife. (You can ask your butcher to do all this for you.)



Perfect Pasta Al Pomodoro

This recipe was staring me down when it arrived in my mail box. A glorious photo of perfect strands of bucatini dressed in a silky, bright tomato sauce. It was simple and looked like it came straight from the cute, Italian speaking waiter serving you at a side street cafe in Rome. At least that is what I imagined when I saw it, but it really was just the cover story on the latest Bon Appetit. The entire issue was dedicated to all things Italy and filled with great tips on perfecting how to make pasta. This recipe allows you to try to make pasta the way you get it in Italy or even your favorite Italian restaurant. You know how even spaghetti with tomato sauce tastes a bit better in a restaurant than at home? Well with a few steps, you can do it too. This pasta, a glass of red, and time to enjoy it will make you a very happy person. Promise.

Pasta Al Pomodoro
Bon Appetit May 2011
serves 4

Heat 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil in a 12" skillet over medium low heat. Add 1 minced medium onion and cook, stirring, until soft, about 12 minutes. Add 4 minced garlic cloves and cook, stirring, for 2-4 minutes. Add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes; cook for 1 minute more.

Increase heat to medium, add one 28 oz. can peeled tomatoes, pureed in a food processor, and season lightly with Kosher salt; cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce thickens slightly and the flavors meld, about 20 minutes. Remove pan from heat, stir in 3 large basil sprigs, and set aside.

Meanwhile, bring 3 quarts water to a boil in a 5-qt. pot. Season with salt; add 12 oz. bucatini or spaghetti and cook, stirring occasionally, until about 2 minutes before tender. (you should just see a bit of white when you break a strand) Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking water.

Discard basil and heat skillet over high heat. Stir in reserved pasta water to loosen sauce; bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook, stirring, until sauce coats pasta  and pasta is al dente, about 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat; add 2 Tbsp. cubed unsalted butter and 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan; toss until cheese melts. Transfer to warm bowls; serve with more cheese, if desired.



Mustard Roasted Fish

This is by far and away your new dinner party best friend. If you are serving a crowd that you know enjoys fish, this is absolutely brainless and completely delicious. The steps are: mix a few ingredients in a bowl, place fish on baking sheet, cover with what you mixed in bowl, bake and serve. In a matter of 20 minutes, you made something that will seem to have taken much more work. Many recipes call for separate instructions to make a sauce for a protein, but this one is done while it roasts. No muss, no fuss, and it comes out perfect every time. It is from none other than the fabulous hostess from the Hamptons, Ina Garten. Her ability to simplify recipes, but at the same time make them seem like you were slaving away for days is why she is so loved. Great additions to this fish for a dinner party would be this beet salad, roasted potatoes, mini warm soft-centered chocolate cakes, and a bottle of Sancerre.

Mustard Roasted Fish
Back to Basics, Ina Garten
serves 4

4 - 8oz. fish fillets such as red snapper, halibut, or sea bass
salt and pepper
8 oz creme fraiche (found near the sour cream or cream cheese)
3 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard
2 tablespoons minced shallots
2 teaspoons drained capers

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. (You can also use an ovenproof baking dish). place the fish fillets skin side down on the sheet pan. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.

Combine the creme fraiche, two mustards, shallots, capers, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon of pepper in a small bowl. Spoon the sauce evenly over the fish fillets, making sure the fish is completely covered.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, until it is barely done. (The fish will flake easily at the thickest part when it's done). Be sure not to over cook it!

Serve hot or at room temperature with the sauce from the pan spooned over the top.



Orzo, Corn, & Avocado Salad

I have been eating this salad for 4 days. It is finally gone and I could not be more sad. Although, I am sure it is better if I lay off it for awhile as I needed an intervention. This pasta salad is basically guacamole salad with orzo and corn. It is amazing and I would recommend making more than you can eat in one sitting as you will want to eat it for days. Now writing about it makes me want to run back to my fridge to see if I have enough of the ingredients to make again. If you like guacamole (if you don't, I have no words) and have made it, this only has a couple more steps. It is the perfect side with any grilled meat, and it's bright flavors make it the perfect meal in itself. Like most salads I love, this one could be made with rice, quinoa, or any pasta shape as well. Add some shredded chicken or black beans and you have a whole meal. You will also need some will power, as not eating the entire bowl of it is really tough. I clearly have none.

Orzo, Corn, & Avocado Salad
Adapted From Cristina's Tuscan Table, 2008 (one of my favorite cookbooks)
serves 8

1 pound orzo
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup fresh corn (cut kernels straight off 2 ears)
4 avocados
1/2 cup lime juice, divided
7 scallions, sliced in thin rounds
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro (Italian parsley would also work)
zest of 2 limes
salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta until al dente (just tender, but still has a bite to it). Drain and set aside. 

In a skillet, heat one tablespoon olive oil over high heat, add the corn, and saute until light brown. Set aside to cool. 

Remove skin from the avocados, cube, and drizzle with one tablespoon lime juice to prevent discoloration. 

In a mixing bowl, gently combine cooked orzo, corn, avocado, scallions, cilantro, lime zest, remaining lime juice, remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste, add more lime juice if you like. 

Serve on radicchio leaves or beautiful, ripe tomatoes.



The Empanada Expirience

Who doesn't love something that comes piping hot out of the oven, is wrapped in dough, and filled with a savory, flavorful filling? The answer is no one, because once you wrap anything in dough and bake it, it will be enjoyed no matter what. I am going to use the word empanada loosely with these recipes because these are not authentic empanadas. I decided to go with some different flavors and try out two different kinds of store-bought dough. I filled pie dough and pizza dough with a Mexican inspired chicken filling and a spicy beef mixture. Both of the fillings were awesome. Easily something to make on their own and serve with rice as well. As far as the better dough, it is a tough call. I prefer the pizza dough as it is not as heavy and I like the chewiness. The pie dough is amazing, but not for a whole meal as it is really rich. Pizza dough is better for dinner sized empanadas and pie dough is better for small appetizers. Both were great and easy to make. This is a great way to use up some leftovers as well. Just pack them in the dough with other delicious ingredients you have around and enjoy.

Forks & Amusement 2011
makes enough to feed 6-8 people

Chicken Filling:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 jalapenos, chopped (remove seeds if you do not like spice)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 whole roasted chicken breast, shredded (I use the store bought rotisserie chickens)
1- 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 handful of cilantro, chopped

To make: Add the oil to a skillet over medium heat. Add in the onion, bell pepper, and jalapeno and cook until softened. Add in the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add in the chicken, tomatoes, salt, pepper, and cumin. Cook for 5 minutes until well combined. Remove from heat, add in the cilantro. Set aside to cool.

Beef Filling:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef
salt and pepper to taste
1 teaspoon of each: ground cumin, paprika, smoked paprika, crushed red pepper
1/2 cup red wine
1 - 14.5 oz can diced tomatoes, drained
1 teaspoon thyme
1/4 cup frozen peas

To make: Add the oil to a skillet over medium heat. Add in the onion and cook until softened. Add in the garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add in the beef, salt, pepper and spices. Cook until meat is cooked through, about 5 minutes. Add in the wine and cook for 5 minutes until mostly evaporated. Add the tomatoes, and cook another 5 minutes. Add the thyme and peas, cook until the peas are no longer frozen, about 2 minutes. Set aside to cool.

To Assemble:
4 store bought pizza dough tubes or
2 package of pie dough (has 2 rounds)
1 egg, beaten lightly in a small bowl

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease 2 baking sheets

You can make the empanadas whatever size you would like. For both the pie and the pizza dough, you handle the same, but the pie dough is much less pliable. So be careful.

Sprinkle some flour on a big work surface, place the dough on it and sprinkle it with flour as well. Using a guide, like a glass, cut out circles in the dough. Place some filling in the very center of the circle, not too much. Fold the dough over itself to create half a circle and at least a 1/4 inch rim. Fold the edges up, pinch the edge with a fork all around to secure. Brush with the egg wash and place on the baking sheet.

Cook for 20-30 minutes depending on the size. They are done once browned and edges are cooked through.

Note: Assembly took some time to get used to. They were not that pretty, but they tasted great!



Lemon Ricotta Ravioli with Asparagus

This is my attempt to bring Spring into the kitchen when outside it is still winter. It snowed this morning in Chicago, and it just makes today lame. I know I live in the Midwest and hate complaining about something like weather, but can we bring the temps above 50? What is not lame though, are these raviolis. I have been wanting to make ravioli for awhile, but I have no interest in making the dough from scratch. Using won ton wrappers is genius and makes it so easy. I had a pasta dish with these flavors in it on a recent trip. Incorporating them all into this was delicious and the dish comes together quite fast. Making the raviolis takes a little time, but once you get in a groove, it is done quickly. So my attempt at Spring is a little early, but at least you can try this and get a head start.

Lemon Ricotta Ravioli with Asparagus
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

1 bunch of asparagus, ends trimmed
15 oz. part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnish
zest of 1 lemon, plus some for garnish
salt and pepper
1 egg, whisked in a small bowl with a splash of water in it
15 oz package of won ton wrappers (in the refrigerated produce section)
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 slices prosciutto, chopped
3 shallots, chopped (you could also use half an onion)
1/2 cup lemon juice
8 oz light sour cream

Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, drop in the asparagus for 4 minutes until just tender, remove and place in a bowl filled with ice and water to stop the cooking process. Remove asparagus and set aside.

In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, Parmesan, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To make the raviolis: Separate one won ton wrapper and place on a clean surface. Brush the edges lightly with the egg wash. Place a heaping teaspoon of the ricotta mixture in the middle. Carefully fold over one corner diagonally to make a triangle. Press down gently removing any air bubbles and allowing for a border of the pasta, you do not want the filling too close to the edge. Press the edges together to make a tight seal and place on plate or board. Repeat with all the wrappers.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Once it is boiling, place a large skillet on the stove over medium heat. Add the olive oil and once hot, add the prosciutto. Cook, separating with a wooden spoon, until just starting to crisp up. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Add the shallot to the pan and cook until just starting to soften. Place the raviolis in the boiling pot of water.

Meanwhile, add the lemon juice to the skillet with the shallot and cook for a minute, turn the heat off. Whisk in the sour cream, asparagus, and salt and pepper to taste.

The ravioli is done when it floats. Add them to the skillet with the sauce and toss lightly.

Serve immediately sprinkling with a little lemon zest, Parmesan cheese and the crispy prosciutto.



Farro Salad with Walnuts and Parmesan

I love salads that you can make for a side and then enjoy as lunch the next day. This one uses a new grain for me, farro. It is an ancient Italian grain that was once used for pasta and bread before wheat was discovered. I was a little bit wary, as it sounded like it was going to be grain-like and taste like cardboard. But after the first bite, I was sold. Once cooked, farro almost has the consistency of pasta and has a ton of flavor. Obviously, I had to jazz it up a bit with some ingredients I had in the fridge, but it did not need too much. I love salads like this because you could easily make this with orzo, rice, pasta, or quinoa. It also makes a ton, so I have plenty of leftovers for tomorrow and I know it would feed a crowd for the future. Feel free to toss in any other vegetables that you love or use pine nuts instead of walnuts. I found the farro in the Italian foods section of the market by the pasta and rice. You might also want to check in the rice aisle by the grains. Bonus is it is a whole grain, full of fiber and protein. So eat up!

Farro Salad with Walnuts and Parmesan 
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 6-8

1 lb farro
2 quarts chicken stock or water
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano
1 tablespoon minced garlic, about 2 cloves
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, more if you like it spicy
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
1 red or yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
3/4 cup chopped toasted walnuts (to toast, just place in a hot pan on the stove until toasted, flipping over the nuts every once in awhile)
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Cover the farro with cold water and soak up to 25 minutes. Drain and place in a pot. Cover with the stock, add some salt. Bring to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered about 25 minutes, of until tender. Drain and set aside to cool in the fridge or spread on a baking sheet first to cool faster. (can be done the day before)

Meanwhile, combine the mustard, vinegar, oregano, garlic, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the oil to make the dressing.

In a large serving bowl, add in the cooled farro. Add the onions, bell pepper, and walnuts. Pour the dressing over that and add the parmesan. Toss everything to coat evenly. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve at room temperature or cold. can be made 1 day in advance.



Chicken Piccata

I am in a bit of a cooking rut right now. My creativity has been sucked out of me and cooking has just not felt totally right the last few days. For dinner last night I knew I had to make something, so I pulled this recipe together with ingredients I already had in the house. This is a much lighter and easy to make version of every one's favorite lemony Italian meal. I did not use any butter and chose a multigrain pasta. The flavors turned out bright, the chicken was moist, and all was better in the world. I think that being in between seasons makes cooking a bit confusing. I look forward to steady warm weather, crisp vegetables, and using the grill as my primary cooking source. Until then, it is fun to put together some every day meals for all of you.

Chicken Piccata
Forks & Amusement 2011
serves 4

4 chicken breasts (about 1.5 lbs), rinsed, patted dry and pounded to even out the thickness to 1/2 inch
a couple tablespoons of flour
salt and pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
7.5 oz of pasta like spaghetti or angel hair, half a box
3 shallots chopped (you could also use garlic or onions)
1 cup of dry white wine
juice of 2 lemons, plus a little extra for serving
1 cup chicken stock
3 tablespoons drained capers
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 handful of parsley, chopped
1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil on the stove.

Sprinkle the flour, salt, and pepper over the chicken breasts to coat. Shake off excess and repeat on other side. Heat a large skillet to medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once hot, add the chicken to the pan.  Brown and cook on both sides, about 7 minutes.

Remove chicken from the pan and cover with foil or place in oven to keep warm. Add the shallots. Cook until just starting to soften, about 2 minutes. Turn heat to high. Add the wine to the pan and scrape up the bottom bits, cook until wine has reduced by half. Add in the lemon juice and the stock and continue to cook until reduced a bit and slightly thickened, about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the package. Drain and set aside.

Remove the skillet from the heat and add in the capers and lemon zest. Taste and adjust seasoning. Place the chicken on serving plates and spoon some sauce over the chicken. Toss the rest of the sauce with the pasta in the skillet, allowing it to soak it up. Divide the pasta among the plates. Garnish with some parsley, parmesan cheese, and a good squeeze of lemon juice. Serve immediately.

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