Monday, April 30, 2012

Oven Dried Tomatoes, Veggie Sandwiches and Aioli

I have been lazy in the kitchen because we went to so many barbecues this weekend. I love this season, love the "I provide the meat if you bring a side" parties and personally feel as though barbecue season is much more my downfall than the holiday season.

Speaking of being lazy, a couple weeks ago my girl Ashley and I went grocery shopping together on an overcast day. Ashley and I have started grocery shopping together every week. She tells me what is in her pantry and I come up with 5 meals that she can make with those pantry items and her grocery list. I think that being her personal menu planner and grocery shopper is a small price to pay for how encouraging she is to me, how much she smooches on my son and for how many freebies she gives me [it pays to have a bestie who works with vintage clothes and housewares. Check her out:]. 

We knew that our men would be joining us for dinner and that we really had no excuse not to have something nice cooked for them, since the cupboards would be full and we would have been home for a few hours...but the idea of watching/ criticizing ignorant home buyers on a few home and DIY shows seemed way more interesting than making a big dinner. 

Did we toil away making delicious things for our men? No. Did they get a fresh, flavorful, thoughtful meal? Yes! Did we get to rip apart people on "our stories" for not wanting to buy a home because they didn't like the wall colors in certain rooms? Yes!

Enter one of my summer staples: Grilled Vegetable Sandwiches with Herb Aioli, this time with the addition of fabulous oven dried tomatoes that my friends Chris and Scott told me about. 

We will start with the oven dried tomatoes, they take the most amount of time but only require about 5-10 minutes of prep work. Also, they turn any roma tomato...even the grossest, pale pinkish fleshed, middle of winter tomatoes into amazing pseudo-sundried tomatoes.

Oven Dried Tomatoes
8 roma tomatoes
1/2 tsp of salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp sugar
2 tbsps olive oil

Preheat your oven to 285 degrees. While preheating, quarter your tomatoes lengthwise and remove the seeds.

  Spread your tomatoes, skin-side down on a baking sheet. Sprinkle sugar, salt and pepper over tomato slices [not olive oil, it won't stick yet]. 

Let cook for an hour and a half. Remove from oven, sprinkle tomato slices with olive oil and return to oven for an additional hour and a half.

Once done, these tomatoes are unbelievable. This time, we piled them on top of grilled veggie sandwiches. The best thing that I have ever done with them is to put the entire tray into a blender with 3 cloves of garlic, 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese and 1 cup of milk [obviously fresh basil would be phenomenal too]...voila, you get unbelievable tomato alfredo sauce. Toss with pasta and slurp it up!!
 That night, about 30 minutes before Brian, Ashley's boo, came over from his barber shop, we threw a bag of frozen french fries into the oven [normally, I would make awesome oven fries but, again, was slightly distracted by HGTV], toasted some bread, sauteed thinly sliced zucchini, button mushrooms and onion slices [on less lazy days, I have fired up the grill for the veggies], and made a quick herb aioli to top the sandwiches. 

The Phantom Yank [the anonymous reader, who may or may not be closely related to me] emailed about not knowing what to do with rarely used mayo. The aioli is a wonderful use for mayo. That night, all I did was take about a 1/3 of a cup of mayo and mix it with a couple teaspoons of lemon juice, a 1/4 tsp of black pepper and  a 1/4 of a cup of chopped green onions. Aioli is a great pantry buster. Mix whatever leftover herbs you have on hand, fresh is best but dried is fine, into the mayo and you get a great dip for oven fries,  or lazy frozen french fries and a great condiment for burgers, veggie burgers or grilled veggie sandwiches. 

This sandwich is also one of my summer staples because it is a great "veggie-buster." I have made this sandwich with practically any veggie that is left in my veggie drawer [well, broccoli might be a stretch]. As long as you saute, grill or broil at a high enough heat to make a good char on the veggies, it is delicious!!

P.S. If you are wondering why the pictures in this post are way nicer than in my previous posts, it is because Ashley is a photographer and documented my cooking.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Cumin Yogurt Sauce and Quinoa Couscous Pantry Buster

Last night's dinner was so easy and so good! It is grocery shopping day today, so, needless to say, I had to do some pantry busting last night. I had two chicken breasts which I was planning on spicing and sauteing. I had a pint of nonfat plain yogurt, a bag of quinoa that had been sitting in my cupboard forever, raisins that were available to steal from Emmett's snack pile, a bag of leftover celery spears from a baby shower and a shallot leftover from making the pumpkin sauce for the Bacon Takedown. A few staple-ish items that also made the list: a lemon, cumin, balsamic vinegar, olive oil and some parsley.

I was inspired by an amazing meal I had at the new "Kitchen" location downtown: a perfectly cooked piece of harissa spiced chicken on top of cumin yogurt sauce and quinoa couscous. I came very close to licking the plate after that meal. It was my favorite type of food: many differently flavored and textured components mixing harmoniously in my mouth!

I started with the yogurt sauce, knowing that the longer it had to sit, the more flavorful it would be. Whether or not you try anything else from this meal, please make this sauce. It is so light and flavorful and would pair well with any mediterranean dish or sauteed meat.

Cumin Yogurt Sauce
1 cup of nonfat plain yogurt [greek yogurt would be awesome, but I only had normal yogurt on hand]
2 tsps cumin seeds or ground cumin
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper

If using seeds, they are so much more flavorful, begin by heating a dry skillet to medium. Add your seeds in and toast for approximately a minute. Throw the  seeds into a mortar and pestle and smash until the seeds start to crack. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can always put seeds into a sealed ziploc bag and take a hammer to them.

If you only have cumin powder, still throw it into a skillet for a minute to wake up the spice.

Add the toasted cumin, salt and pepper to the yogurt. Stir to combine and set aside until ready to serve.

P.S. I used my emptied yogurt container to mix in so that I didn't have to clean up another bowl.

Quinoa Couscous
2 1/2 cups of cooked and cooled quinoa
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/3 c. raisins
1/2 c. finely sliced celery
1/2 of a shallot, finely chopped [if you don't have shallot, chopped green onion would work well]
2 T chopped parsley
1 T olive oil
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. agave nectar, honey or sugar [whatever you have on hand]
1/4 tsp of salt
1/4 tsp of black pepper

Combine your raisins and lemon juice in a small bowl. Plump your raisins in the lemon juice by throwing them into your microwave for 30 seconds or heating them on the stovetop for a couple of minutes.

Add the plumped raisins, celery, shallot and parsley to the couscous and stir to combine. Here is the couscous, right before I mixed the celery in:

Make your vinaigrette by whisking together your oil, vinegar, sweetener, salt and pepper. Pour on top of your couscous and stir to combine. Let sit for a few minutes before serving to let the flavors develop.

I served the couscous alongside chicken and dolloped a ton of the yogurt sauce on top of both...healthy, easy and soooo good!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bacon Takedown!!

This weekend was the 1st annual Denver Bacon Takedown! The Takedowns are a cool, national food competition that recently added Denver to their tour list. Check them out: I signed up for the competition a few weeks ago and came up with the idea for bacon, black pepper biscuits with bacon jam. We tested them out at Easter, they were good but we had a feeling that they weren't enough to win a competition. 

This past Thursday, as we were driving to pick up our bacon, I couldn't shake the feeling that I wanted to add another dish. I wanted something bubbly, goopy and full of the lusciousness of bacon. No joke, after a couple, lame bacon brainstorming ideas, it was as if the clouds parted. Last fall, I was inspired by seasonal pumpkin raviolis and thought, "Why not make a pumpkin-ricotta lasagna?" It was TDF! On Thursday, I thought, "Wouldn't delicious bacon crumbles pair perfectly with savory-sweet pumpkin, fresh sage and creamy ricotta?" Yes, it did! The Piggy Pumpkin Lasagna got first place in the People's Choice award which came with a year's supply of Hormel Black Label Bacon[given via an awesome, giant check which barely fit in our little car], a Le Creuset pan, an Anolon pan, a Microplane and a giant Wusthof chef's knife. 

The process began Friday night, with child in bed and husband playing a show, I fried 4.5 pounds of chopped bacon and crafted my bacon jam for the bacon bisquits. Chopped bacon joined caramelized onions, coffee, maple syrup, brown sugar and apple cider vinegar in the crockpot and became bacon jam.

In between frying chopped bacon, I cooked an additional 9 pounds of bacon in the oven. At the end of the night, the entire house reeked of bacon and it was wonderful!

On Saturday, I made homemade ricotta- I use Ina Garten's amazing and easy recipe. Here it is: [sidenote, yes I am slightly jealous that it was made with Gwyneth Paltrow after Gwyneth sauntered over from her Hamptons home to test out recipes with the Barefoot Contessa and then probably frolicked on the beach while brushing accidental sand off the top of Ina's brownies]. While the ricotta was simmering, I began the process of making 4 batches of bacon, black pepper and brown sugar biscuits.

The following morning, I whipped up a quick bacon butter to go with the biscuits [whir 6 slices of pre-cooked bacon in a food processor with a stick of butter and, if you want, a tablespoon of reserved bacon grease].

 Yes, the boys did have to entertain themselves while I toiled, wink!

After the butter was done, it was on to lasagna. I crumbled my pre-cooked bacon from Friday night in the food processor, made a savory pumpkin sauce, grated mozzarella and let the party begin!

I had a blast at the Takedown! So great to meet the creative, fun fellow- bacon lovers. It was also wonderful to have my right- hand man, Sam, there. The hard-workin', introverted side of him chose to hunker down, heat, butter and jam our jillion biscuits allowing me to be a showboat, serve lasagna and chat up the tasters.

Piggy Pumpkin Lasagna
Yields one 9 x 13 pan.

1 box of oven ready lasagna noodles [the kind that you don't have to par-boil]
1.5 pounds of Hormel Black Label bacon
3 shallots, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, chopped
12 sage leaves, chopped or 2 tbsp. ground, dried sage
5 c. chicken broth
1, 29 oz. can of pumpkin puree
1 tsp of sugar
1/2 c. whole milk
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper 
3 cups of ricotta [recipe link above, if you have time to make ricotta]
1 lb. grated mozzarella

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. 

Chop and saute a half pound of bacon, approximately 6 slices, in a dutch oven or soup pot, on medium high heat. While that bacon is cooking, place the pound of bacon, roughly 12 slices on a greased baking sheet and cook until brown, approximately 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven, and set aside.

Once the chopped bacon has browned, remove from pot with a slotted spoon and set aside. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of bacon grease.

Add shallots, garlic and half of the chopped sage to the bacon grease and saute until shallots are translucent.

Deglaze the pan with 5 cups of chicken broth, making sure to scrape up delicious bacon bits from the pot bottom with a wooden spoon. Add can of pumpkin puree, sugar, milk, black and cayenne pepper. Stir to combine and let simmer for a minimum of a half hour to allow flavors to combine well. You can also let this sit, Italian grandma style, covered on the stove for hours.

While this simmers, crumble your pound of cooked bacon and mix with your remaining sage leaves. I found that the easiest way to do this was by chucking all of it into my food processor and after several pulses, ending up with bacon sage crumbs. 

Prepare your lasagna assembly line, starting with a greased 9 x 13 pan, then your bowl of bacon sage crumbles, pumpkin sauce, ricotta and mozzarella. Check it out:

I start with a thin layer of sauce, then noodles, then whatever order you desire when it comes to your layers. The ricotta is only used on the in-between layers. My top layer only has the noodles, pumpkin sauce to coat the noodles, bacon- sage crumbles and the mozzarella. Make sure to leave at least half of your mozzarella for the top layer, to get that gooey crust. Make as many layers as fits your pan or as allowed by your noodle count.

Bake, covered with aluminum foil, for one hour. Remove foil and let cheese brown for approximately 5 minutes. Voila!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Tzatziki and Pita...mmm, mmmmm!

The single biggest way that I go over my grocery budget is by not planning for get-togethers.  I either forget and need to go out and buy groceries or I get the hankering to make something really fun for friends and cast aside the groceries I have on hand and go out and buy fun, new groceries to entertain with.

Not this week!! We had a potluck BBQ planned for Saturday night. I had on hand: left over sour cream, flour, yeast, onions and dill. Throw some non-fat yogurt and an english cucumber into the weekly groceries and you get Homemade Pitas and Tzatziki!

1/2 of an English cucumber, grated
1/4 of a red onion, finely chopped
1 c. reduced fat sour cream [of course full fat would be delish and nonfat would be fine]
1 c. nonfat plain yogurt [greek yogurt would be awesome, but normal yogurt was cheaper]
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. fresh, cracked pepper
3/4 tsp. dried dill

Grate your cucumber and place into a small colander, sprinkle with 1/4 tsp. of the salt. Set aside.

Add sour cream, yogurt, chopped onion, remaining salt, pepper and dill to a bowl. Stir until sour cream and yogurt are combined.
With your hand, press liquid out of the grated cucumber. Add cucumber to mixture and stir until combined.

Pour mixture into a cheesecloth lined colander and let strain for a half hour. You can also use a dampened dishcloth in place of cheesecloth, but you will probably have to let it strain for a longer period of time. 

After the surplus liquid has drained, try your best to not jam spoonfuls of the creamy tzatziki into your mouth while waiting for the pitas to be ready.

Pitas/ What I use for pizza dough
*I use my big ole' food processor to make this dough in about a minute, feel free to use a stand mixer or your hands. If using your hands, simply knead until dough feels slightly elastic-y, like it will bounce back if you stick your finger in it.

5 c. all purpose flour [You can substitute a couple cups of whole wheat flour]
1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
2 tsp. yeast [one packet of yeast will do fine as well]
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 c. 120 degree water

Yields approximately 12 pitas.
Add all dry ingredients to your food processor.

Turn on your food processor and let whir [yes, that is probably the technical term] while you stream in your olive oil and warm water.

Stop as soon as the mixture forms a loose ball.

Remove dough and place in an oiled mixing bowl [I used approximately 1 tbsp of oil in my bowl].  Form into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise for at least one hour. *Sidenote: I wandered off, changed a couple diapers, went to a baby shower and returned to my dough 4 hours later. As long as it has at least an hour to rise, it doesn't matter how long it sits.

After dough has risen, flour your counter and grab your rolling pin [an empty wine bottle works well too]. Pre-heat a frying pan on high until really hot. Once it is hot, lower to medium high. I used a big double griddle pan that I had because it allowed me to do two at once, but a frying pan works just as well.

Break dough into fist sized balls. Roll until you have reached your desired size, I like mine about a 1/3 of an inch thick and maybe 6-8 inches in diameter. You can't mess this part up. They are so yummy, that the thickness and shape doesn't matter. Think "rustic.

I normally time it so that while I am rolling one, I am cooking another.

Add pita to your pan [no oil needed]. Cook on one side for approximately one minute, or until slight brown spots appear, then flip. Cook other side for one minute as well.

Your pitas are good to go! At this point, I have also used the "pitas" as individual pizza crusts for make-your- own pizza parties. With the pitas already cooked all they need are toppings and 5-10 minutes in a high oven, think 450 or higher or, even better, 5 minutes on top of the grill...for smoky, amazing, crusty, slightly charred-bottom pizzas!

Timing Tip: If making both dishes at the same time, make pita dough and set aside to rise. While pita is rising, make tzatziki and set aside to strain.  This way, by the time your tzatziki is done straining, your pita dough will be ready too.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Finally Doing This!

After A LOT of prodding by well meaning friends and family, I am excited to start blogging. My bestie Ashley keeps telling me that the ways that I cook, shop and pull recipes out of mid-air are something special. I normally brush off her compliments, but, just in case you agree with her, I thought that I would create a blog where I can tell you a little bit about what I love to do!

First: I love playing with this boy everyday! He mostly enjoys what I feed him [except for the times that he fake gags when I place something undesirable in front of him] as evidenced in this ketchup licking picture.

Second: I love my dreamboat hubby, obvi! He even helps me at cooking competitions. I focus on the taste and he focuses on the aesthetics. With our powers combined, we placed second in both the judges' and people's choice categories of the Denver Avocado Takedown!

Third: I love food and I'm kind of a cheapskate! Thus, a lot of this blog will feature pantry-purger recipes and on-a-budget menus. Stay tuned for more!