Monday, April 29, 2013

Monday Recipe: Macaroni & Cheese Stuffed Meatloaf

     Ah, meatloaf. The quintessential middle-class dinner. Basically a slab of baked ground beef. My parents used to make a wicked good meatloaf. Naturally, they had no actual recipe. They just threw a bunch of stuff in a bowl and mashed it around with their hands. Then they'd put it in a loaf pan and bake it. They'd top it with a little barbecue sauce and cheese and there you had it. Dinner was served!
     I still do fundamentally the same thing when I make meatloaf. However, last Friday was different. The wife and I were discussing dinner options and meatloaf came up. She enjoys my meatloaf quite a bit and said I should make it. I suggested mac & cheese as a side. Then it hit me. A stroke of genius unlike any other. I would put the mac & cheese IN the meatloaf!
Even Relativity Theory pales in comparison
     The wife raved. People on Facebook raved. I was moderately impressed. Esteemed ladies and gentlemen, I present to you...

Macaroni & Cheese Stuffed Meatloaf
For Macaroni & Cheese
  • 1 5.5 ounce box macaroni & cheese mix
  • 2 tablespoons heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3/4 cup shredded colby-jack cheese
For Meat
  • 2 pounds 80/20 ground beef
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tablespoons bread crumbs
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup barbecue sauce, plus another 1/4 cup reserved
  • 3/4 cup shredded colby-jack cheese, reserved
For Macaroni and Cheese
  1. Cook pasta according to directions, drain and return to pot
  2. Add contents of cheese packet, butter, cream and shredded cheese, stir until all ingredients are melted and incorporated. 
  3. Set pot aside
For Meat
This is what you should have
at step #4
  1. Preheat oven to  375F. Put a crappy cookie sheet on the bottom rack to catch the inevitable drippings.
  2. In a large bowl, add meat, onion, bread crumbs, and 1/4 cup barbecue sauce. Mix well with hands. Yes, your hands. This is how it's done. Stop being a baby and get in there.
  3. In a loaf pan, put a layer of meat (about 1/2") on the bottom. Then take more meat and use it to build walls. You should end up with a trench in the middle. It should look like bathtub made of meat. 
  4. Fill the trench with as much of the mac & cheese mixture that you can. Don't go above the top of the pan. Feel free to eat any of the leftover mac & cheese as you cook. That's what we did. At this point, things should look like the picture above.
  5. Cover the mac & cheese with the last of the meat. Pat it down. 
  6. Put in the oven for about 40 minutes. You're going to need to take it out a couple of times and drain the fat. If you have one of those fancy meatloaf pans (as seen on TV!) it will be much easier. Otherwise, use a wooden spatula to hold the meatloaf in place while you tip the pan to drain the fat. Be careful to not let the top of the meatloaf break off. You'll have to drain the fat a couple of times during the cooking.
  7. After 40 minutes, take out and spread remaining barbecue sauce over the top of the meatloaf. Sprinkle remaining cheese over the barbecue sauce. Return to oven until cheese is melted, about 10-15 more minutes.
  8. Remove from oven and let sit for about 10 minutes before serving. Be extremely careful if you're going to take it out of the pan before slicing. You may want to use two spatulas and come at it from both ends. Cut gently with a large knife. I used my big bread slicer.

Good times!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Terms I Can't Bring Myself To Use

As much as I like Rachel Ray, I just can't bring myself to say "sammie" in place of "sandwich." I don't call them "sammiches," so it feels wrong. It's a bit too cutesy for me. Rachael Ray has a proclivity for needless frippery in regards to culinary nomenclature. See what I did there? I could have just said she uses cutesy language for her food. Instead I needlessly changed out the language. A sandwich doesn't need a nickname. It needs a side of potato chips and a pickle spear.  Also, I associate the word with something entirely different.
Probably not what Rachael Ray had in mind.

"Slider" is a very specific term to me. It does not refer to any small sandwich. To me, "slider" refers to a hamburger from White Castle. I feel like my belief system is being challenged when I see any fanciful small sandwich called a slider. Sliders are called such for good reasons. They slide out of the box. They slide down your throat. They slide out of...well, you get the idea. If you have a small hamburger or sandwich and you didn't get it from a White Castle, it's not a slider. It's just a small hamburger or sandwich.
Harold and Kumar enjoying sliders (or slyders), aka White Castle hamburgers.
The problem here is that, according to my wife, I have the maturity of a 12 year old. So when a recipe calls for spatchcock, or someone tells me that they had some spatchcock last night, I have a hard time not reacting inappropriately.
I'll just keep calling it "butterflied" until I can grow up.
 I know fondant is all the rage with cakes and cupcakes and the like. There is no denying the end result of skilled fondant use is truly amazing.
Then you get something like this.
However, fondant does not look appetizing to me in any form. It reminds me of paraffin, which I try to avoid using in my cooking if at all possible.  Nor does it even sound appetizing. Fondant sounds like something you'd use in masonry.

Well, that's enough gentle fun for today. Good times!

Monday, April 22, 2013

Monday Recipe: Salmon and Shrimp in Chili-Lime Tomato Sauce

     Normally I like to work from a recipe. I may make omissions and substitutions or add something here and there, but I like to have that framework to build on. Sometimes, I just wing it. This was one of those times.  Last week I wanted something fairly low in calories but big on flavor. I wanted to feel like I was really eating something substantial.  I figured that chili-lime was a classic combo. However, I decided on an alternative lime source. I thought Rose's Lime juice from the bar would be a nice compliment to the sriracha and sweet onion. I was right. This was fantastic and healthy to boot!
Salmon and Shrimp in Chili-Lime Tomato Sauce
  • 4 salmon fillets
  • 1/2 lb. medium shrimp, cleaned and de-tailed
  • 1 large, sweet onion, diced
  • 1 rib celery, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 pints tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 tablespoon Sriracha sauce
  • 1 teaspoon Rose's Lime Juice
  • 1 tablespoon heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil
  1. Heat olive oil in pan, add garlic, celery and onion. Saute until tender. 3-5 minutes.
  2. Take medium saucepan. Add tomatoes.  Stir in basil, Sriracha, and Rose's Lime. Blitz with an immersion blender until smooth. Add onion, celery and garlic. Bring to boil, lower to simmer and let simmer uncovered for about 25 minutes.
  3. While sauce is simmering, heat grapeseed oil in pan and cook salmon on medium heat until fish flakes easily with a fork. Add shrimp near end of cooking time and cook until pink.
  4. Take immersion blender and blend sauce until smooth, add heavy cream and stir. 
  5. Put salmon on plate, place shrimp on salmon. Cover with tomato sauce.
Serves 4 (or two really hungry people)
Good times!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Kung Pao Pork and Vegetables with Noodles

     Sometimes you have more leftovers than you know what to do with. That happened to me when I made a seven pound pork shoulder. I started running out of things to do with it. I finally wound up digging around for ingredients and cobbled this dinner together. I posted it on Facebook and people responded fairly well. A couple people asked for the recipe. Looking at the picture, it appears that this is a very involved dish. Edamame? That's not something most people have in the house? How did this dish happen?
     I cheated. The veggies are a microwave steamer pack. The sauce is store bought. The noodles are 10 cent Ramen. However, the meal was delicious. Maybe a touch high in sodium, but overall fairly healthy. It doesn't have to be expensive or complicated to be good.

Kung Pao Pork and Noodles
  1. Heat oil in pan. Cook until browned on all sides.
  2. Cook frozen vegetables in microwave according to directions. Use minimum cooking time suggested.
  3. Reduce heat on pork, add cooked vegetables from bag.
  4. In a saucepan, bring water to boil. Cook noodles until al dente. Drain. Add noodles to pork and vegetables in pan. 
  5. Add Kung Pao sauce. Toss so sauce covers everything evenly. 
  6. Serve and enjoy!
Good times!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Monday Recipe: Chicken Cordon Bleu Stuffing Casserole

     We've been trying to burn through some surplus ham for a few days now. This weekend I thought maybe I could make a chicken cordon bleu for dinner. Then I decided that was a lot like work. So naturally, I completely lost my mind and decided to completely wing a recipe loosely based on chicken cordon bleu. It turned out far better than I expected. It was a warm, tasty and satisfying meal. Truly, is there anything more definitive of the middle class than the humble casserole? This is super easy to make and the herbs really give it a nice pop of flavor.

Chicken Cordon Bleu Stuffing Casserole

  • 3 cooked chicken breasts, cut into 1" cubes
  • 2 cups cooked ham, diced
  • 1 cup grated Swiss cheese
  • 2 6-oz. boxes of Herb de Provence Stuffing Mix (if not available, you're going to need to add those herbs yourself)
  • 1 can low-sodium Cream of Mushroom soup
  • 2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon melted margarine
  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and toss so everything is coated
  3. Pour into baking dish coated with non-stick cooking spray
  4. Bake for about 35-40 minutes depending on how crispy you like the top.
Good times!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Italian Pinwheel Rolls (via Everyday Light Meals)

     It seems that every time my wife leaves me unattended in the house I end up baking. I'm not sure why that is, but she hasn't complained yet. Today she went out for a couple of hours and I immediately started looking for something to bake. I busted open a well worn cookbook (Taste of Home Everyday Light Meals) and started searching for a recipe that I could make with what I had in the house. I ended up with these rolls. I threw in some dried tomatoes we had left over from last season and they added a nice sweet note to the rolls. The wife was suitably pleased with the results and wound up eating three or four.

Italian Pinwheel Rolls 
(via Taste of Home Everyday Light Meals)
  • 1 package (.25 oz) active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water (100-115F)
  • 1.5 teaspoon sugar
  • 1.5 teaspoon butter, softened
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2.25-2.5 cups flour
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • .25 cup grated Parmesan Cheese
  • 2 tablespoons fresh parsley (omitted)
  • 6 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons chopped sun-dried tomatoes
  1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sugar, butter, salt and 1 cup flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (I wound up using just shy of 2.5 cups of flour)
  2. Turn out onto floured surface. Knead until smooth and elastic, about 6-8 minutes (I just chucked it all in the Kitchenaid with the dough hook and let it do the work). Place in bowl coated in non-stick cooking spray, turning once to coat top. Cover and let rise in warm place until doubled, about an hour.
  3. Punch dough down. Turn out onto lightly floured surface and roll into 12x10" rectangle. Brush with melted butter. Sprinkle Parmesan, parsley, garlic, oregano and desired fillings to within 1/2 inch of edge. Roll up jelly-roll style, starting on long side. Pinch seam to seal. Cut into 12 rolls.
  4. Place rolls cut side up in a baking pan covered in non-stick spray. Cover and let rise until doubled, about 30 minutes.
  5. Bake at 350F for 25-30 minutes or until golden brown (mine took 25 minutes). Remove from pan to wire rack to cool.
About 110 calories per roll.

Good times!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

On Sowing and Hoeing

     Spring has sprung and it's time to start up the garden again. When we first moved, we started with a smallish patch of garden and grew a few veggies for fun. Each year the garden got a little bigger and encroached further into sections of the lawn. That's fine. Less to mow. Regardless, we found that despite the tremendous amount of work in maintaining a garden, we really enjoyed it. If you have any space at all, a garden is extremely rewarding.  Since we live in central Illinois we don't even have to guess when it's time to get started. I just watch the farmers. Last weekend I saw that the tractors were out tilling and fertilizing. We did the same. So what are some of the benefits of gardening?

Getting Your Lazy Butt Out of the House
This is a big one for me. Left to my own devices in the summer, it's likely I would spend all my time sitting on the patio smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. 
Me (on left) enjoying a smoke with a couple guys from the neighborhood.
Maintaining a garden requires a fair amount of energy on the part of the gardener. Breaking sod, tilling new soil, pulling weeds, clearing debris, putting in fencing and plant supports can be exhausting. Plus, once summer gets into full swing you'll be watering, cutting, weeding, harvesting, replanting and who knows what else all under heat and sun. You will burn calories. You will be tired. You will not regret it.

It's Mentally Rewarding
There's nothing like the sense of accomplishment you get when you see the garden start producing. Especially if you grew the plants from seed. I feel like a Pioneer. I have tilled the soil and sown the seeds and brought food up from the ground! Plus there's the good feeling of knowing that if the economy ever collapses, you'll at least have a big rack of canned foods to eat.

You Get Fresh Food
This is why we have the garden. We want the food. We want to need vegetables for our recipes and be able to just walk outside and get them. We want to turn all that produce into jellies, pickles, sauces and all sorts of wonderful canned goods. 
     Granted, it's not all flowers and sunshine. Literally. Gardening is not without its downside. I would be doing you a disservice to not delve into the seedier side of gardening. (TWO puns in the same paragraph, now that's bounty!)

You're Probably Going To Hurt Yourself
There are a number of amusing ways to injure yourself while gardening. 
  • Back Injuries
    You're going to be bending, reaching, pushing and pulling all sorts of things. It's only a matter of time before you reach the wrong way and you spend the next week popping Flexerils. 
  • Burns
    There is always the threat of a nice sunburn, but let's not overlook the possibility of chemical burns if you're growing super-hot peppers! The wife can attest to skin irritation from simply planting the seeds.
  • Assorted Punctures, Incisions and Lacerations
    You will be dealing with many different gardening tools, all of which have the capacity to cause grievous bodily injuries if mishandled. I live in constant fear that I'm going to accidentally get my foot sucked into the tiller. Also, don't forget many plants have exciting prickers to rake across your hands and arms as you reach! Such fun!
Nature Is Unpredictable
 If you get a season of solid weather, your garden is going to blow up and you're going to be looking for people to unload surplus produce on.  Last year we had very little rain. This year looks to be a lot of rain. Provided we can get past the two potential frosts this week. High winds and heavy rains can knock down your plants and kill seedlings. It got so hot one day our cilantro all turned brown and died.
Actual photo of my cilantro last summer.
Sometimes, Nothing Works
You have to accept that sometimes, you'll fail.  No matter how much you try to do everything right, no matter how good the weather and soil is, stuff won't grow. For the last two years, despite our best efforts, we have been unable to grow cucumbers. We'll get a couple little malformed ones, but that's it. We have tried different spots, different seeds. Nothing works. 

     So what have we learned from all this? Gardening can be hard. It can be expensive. It can also be very rewarding. You just need to learn to take the good with the bad. Much like with the Chicago Cubs, there's always Next Season.

Good times!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Monday Recipe: Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

     Ah, the much maligned anchovy. So few people understand you. When you say anchovy, "EEW! Slimy fish!" or some approximation is normally the response you get. Some misinformed people think pizza is the natural habitat of the anchovy. They turn their head and will not condescend to eat anything with this salty little devil lurking about in it.
     My wife is one of those people. I have tried and tried again to get her to eat an anchovy. It wasn't happening. Then I realized what I was doing wrong. I needed to trick her. I needed to add anchovy to something she is powerless to resist. I laid one across my manly chest. Nothing. Then I realized I'd be better off putting them in some sort of pasta. I'm convinced she loves pasta more than me. I think she loves me because I make pasta for her to eat. Whatever works. I started digging through my Italian cookbooks until I found this little gem in World Food Italy by Linda Doeser. The recipe from the book calls for linguine, we only had spaghetti in the house, so there you go. How can you possibly go wrong with a recipe that literally translated, means "Whore's Style Spaghetti?"

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca
(via World Food Italy by Linda Doeser)
(for the sauce)
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 10 anchovy fillets, drained and chopped 
  • scant 1 cup black olives, pitted and chopped
  • 1 tbsp. capers, rinsed
  • 1 lb. plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped (we used tomatoes we canned from our garden)
  • pinch of cayenne pepper
(remaining ingredients)
  • salt
  • 14 oz. dried spaghetti
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf pasta (which I totally forgot to use. Oh well)
  1. Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottom pan. Add garlic and cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes.
  2. Add anchovies and mash them with a fork. Add olives, capers and tomatoes and season to taste with cayenne pepper.
  3. Cover and let simmer for 25 minutes.
  4. While sauce is simmering, bring pot of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain.
  5. Spoon sauce over pasta and toss. Garnish with parsley. 
This makes about 4 servings.

Good times!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

An Observation On My Parents' Cooking

     I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where both parents cooked. Granted, they did not cook every night. Both of my parents worked full time jobs. Mom usually wasn't home until about 5 PM and Dad an hour or so later. They wouldn't cook every night. Usually they'd cook a few big meals that we could eat on the rest of the week.
    On its own, this isn't anything special. Lots of parents do this. What stands out in my memory is that I don't recall them ever consulting a recipe when they cooked. I can't remember many of my recipes, no matter how often I cook them. I'm completely incapable of making my meatballs without the recipe handy. My parents either had fantastic memories, or were tremendous freestyle cooks.
     Generally my Mom came up with the core recipes. Dad would often just riff on her recipes. My Dad's chili that I've spoken of before is actually based on my Mom's recipe. She had some solid recipes. She did a chicken, veggie and rice dish that she could throw together in minutes. I swear by her meatloaf recipe. Even my wife, who normally doesn't like meatloaf, likes this meatloaf. She had a London Broil with garlic potatoes that was astounding. And as a Jewish Mother, she could deal out the chicken soup and matzoh balls like no body's business. Some day I shall speak to you of her sausage and neck bones in tomato sauce.
     Dad had his standards as well. He did a fantastic linguine in white clam sauce. He was the master of all things grilled. Nobody could make an omelet as good as him. His chili was the stuff of legend. He made a wonderful fried matzoh for breakfast. He eventually would take over Thanksgiving cooking duties from my Mom and did a wonderful job of it.
     I owe a good deal of my passion for cooking to my parents. Without ever trying, they showed me that, with very little effort, you could put good, home-made food on the table. There's a little of my Mom and Dad in everything I cook.
Oh, stop it.
Good times!