Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Spicy Chicken Ziti

Spicy Chicken with Ziti


I keep seeing cooks on the Food Network make Chicken Riggies or Chicken with Rigatoni. Now I am up for almost ANY kind of pasta dish, and hey, chicken, it's a no brainer. So, I went to my local (smaller size) market and believe it or not, they did NOT have any rigatoni! What? I could hardly believe it, but I can roll with it, so I substituted ziti. Not that there is THAT much difference between ziti and rigatoni, but there is a little bit.

This came together pretty quickly once I had chopped everything up. It was rich, spicy, creamy and very satisfying, all at the same time. Makes the cut for a pretty easy weeknight dinner!

I made what I thought would be about right for 2 people, but it actually made 4 servings. Go figure, I've never been very good at "portioning" things out. I am always the one who makes way too much, or tries to transfer leftovers into a container that's either way too small for that amount or overly gigantic for the little bit I've got to store. I can't explain it, but that's just me. I feel like this is pretty family friendly, but to get my "kids" to eat it, I'd have to leave out the mushrooms! Maybe sub some roasted red peppers? That would probably work. Start out with 1/2 tsp. of the red pepper flakes if you are not sure how much spice you want. I used 1 tsp. in ours. Don't omit the thyme, it pairs so very well with the chicken and mushrooms, and adds a nice earthy taste. The  thyme in my garden is extremely hardy so I have it available all year round. Even if I've got to brush some snow of it, I can find some green underneath! If you don't grow thyme, give it a try, it's super easy -- at least it is here in Central VA! It also smells really good when you are working in your garden, an added bonus.

Here's what I came up with:

Spicy Chicken with Ziti

3 boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite sized pieces
1 T. olive oil
2 tsp. minced garlic
1/3 c. diced yellow onion
4 oz. crimini mushrooms, halved (baby portobello)
1/4 c. Madeira wine or Dry Sherry
2 heaping T. tomato paste
1 tsp. fresh thyme or 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 - 1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes (or more if you really  like spicy)
1/2 c. low sodium chicken broth
1/3 c. light cream
1 tsp. kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper

8 oz. ziti cooked al dente
Grated Parmesan cheese for topping

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium high heat and add chicken thighs. Sear them on all sides until lightly browned. Remove to a bowl. In the same pan, add onion and cook for  few minutes until they begin to soften. Add garlic and mushrooms to the pan, and continue to cook about 5 more minutes. Deglaze the pan with the wine or sherry, then add the chicken broth and thyme. Stir in the tomato paste and red pepper flakes. Bring this to a boil, and put the chicken back into the pan. Add the salt and a little pepper, cover and cook for 15 minutes. Add the cooked ziti and the cream and toss the whole dish together. Cover and let it sit 5 minutes. Serve in a shallow bowl sprinkled with Parmesan. Serves 4.



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Delicious Holiday Treat: Spiced Nuts



Let me start out by saying that I take absolutely NO credit for this recipe. It comes from one of my favorite authors, Deborah Harkness. Deborah is not only a great author, but a kind and generous person who interacts with her readers and shares her many inspirations, like music and food and art and so much more. Check her out HERE . She's also a woman after my own heart as she loves to cook and is a wine blogger! If you haven't read her All Souls Trilogy you are missing a real treat -- it's like Harry Potter for grown ups with a scholarly dose of history thrown into the mix.

So, here's what I've been making -- Spiced Nuts or "Em's Vampire Nuts" as they are referenced in the books. This is the 3rd year I've made them, and they are delicious. They make a great gift, aren't too labor intensive and have the distinction of having several good ways to serve them. You can, of course, eat them on their own as a snack, but I LOVE them on top of a salad. Get a fancy blend of lettuce that includes arugula (or rocket as they call it across the pond). Top it with some goat cheese, and either pomegranate seeds or craisins, drizzle with a balsamic vinaigrette and place a few of these nuts, pride of place, right on top. I bet they'd be great on top of a shortbread cookie as well, like pecan sandies for grownups.  Heaven! Fancy without being fussy, special without being pretentious! Give this a try, you'll thank me (and Deborah Harkness)!

Spiced Nuts

1 lb halved nuts ( I like walnuts or pecans or a mixture of the two, You can also use almonds but don't use cashews -- they burn too quickly.)
2 1/2 vegetable or canola oil (don't use olive oil)
1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1/2 tsp. Kosher salt
1/4 tsp. cardamon
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg

In a medium saucepan, boil 3 inches of water and add the nuts. Blanch them for 1 minute and drain well. When they are drained, put them while still hot into a bowl with the vanilla and oil. Sprinkle with the sugar. Stir well to coat the nuts and then let them sit for 10 minutes. Preheat your oven to 325 degrees while you are waiting. Spread the nuts in a single layer on a large baking sheet with a rim. Bake the nuts for about 30 minutes, stirring and turning them every 7 - 10 minutes. Watch them carefully -- they can go from brown to burned quickly! In between stirring, mix the salt, cardamon, cinnamon and nutmeg together in a cup. When the nuts  are finished baking, put them into a big bowl and sprinkle with the spices. Stir, stir and stir them until all the spices are evenly distributed. Cool them in a single layer on some parchment or waxed paper. Store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks in a cool dry place (not the refrigerator). Enjoy!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Simple Chicken Dinner



I think that some of you may think I spend hours in the kitchen every day, slaving away over a hot stove, concocting complicated dishes. In reality, that is far from the truth. Even though our kids are grown now, I am still working and have a couple of part time jobs. I also love to garden and read, and have a weird TV obsession with "Law and Order". Don't ask, I know it's weird.

Some days, I just want in and out of the kitchen in no time flat, however, because I am a pretty good cook, expectations are high when it comes to dinner time. One of my very favorite short cut, "I don't have time for this" dinners is a go to that I am sure many of you use: Boneless, skinless frozen chicken breasts. They are great to have in the freezer, and we always keep them on hand. I buy them in huge bags at our big box store, and take out as many as I need for dinner. The only drawback that I can see to them, is that their size is often a little inconsistent. If you pull out 4, two of them may be huge and 2 may be on the smaller side. Other than that little issue, they are just what a busy woman needs. One of the easiest ways is simply to marinate them in Wishbone Lite Italian dressing and grill them, about 4 minutes on each side usually does the trick. You don't want to over cook them or they start to resemble rubber bands. And taste like them too. And YES, Wishbone is the dressing of choice for this meal at my house.

That's the taste we like when I am in a hurry. It only takes about 15 minutes in the marinade once they are thawed -- and they thaw very quickly -- to make a difference in the taste. 

As far as side dishes go, my hub could eat a baked potato EVERY. DAY.OF. HIS. LIFE. Me, not so much. I like a good baked potato as much as anyone, especially with a rare steak ( See how I make them here.) but once a week is plenty for me. My go to , in a hurry side dish is what my family calls "Meemaw Noodles". We call them that because my Mom loved them. And since today should have been her 82nd birthday, here's the secret of "Meemaw Noodles".  This makes about 4 servings. Cook  about 10 oz. of egg noodles according to the directions on the bag. Drain them well. Put 1 T. butter into the hot pot while the noodles are draining When the butter is melted, put the noodles. back into the pot. Stir them to coat with the butter. Add 1 tablespoon lite Daisy Sour Cream and stir again. Sprinkle with 2  tablespoons Kraft Grated Parmesan Cheese. Yes, the kind in the green can, I officially give you my permission to use the green can when making this dish. That's how my mom did it and that's how I do it. 

Sprinkle the noodles lightly with salt, add a generous amount to pepper and stir it all together. Put the lid on, let them sit a few minutes to heat through. Serve with the grilled chicken. I usually put the water on to boil, start the grill., add the noodles, and grill the chicken kind of all at the same time. Add any vegetable or salad stuff you've got and call it dinner.  The dinner picture shown has some of my leftover ratatouille on the side (recipe here). 

So now  you know. I am just as time crunched as many women, and sometimes I am pretty lazy in the kitchen. I feel so much better now that I've confessed! Try this and don't feel guilty. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Perfect Fall Brunch: Breakfast Pizza and Fried Apples

Breakfast Pizza with Fried Apples
The weather has turned decidedly cooler this weekend here in Central VA. I've had apples on my mind -- sweet, tart, crispy apples. Yesterday for lunch I made a fruit salad filled with apples, red grapes, pineapple and orange slices. This morning, I made Fried Apples to go along with our Breakfast Pizza Casserole. They were a favorite of my mom, and something she made many weekend mornings.

This Breakfast Pizza is a long time family favorite, and while it is really, really kid friendly, adults like it too. It goes together quickly and will feed 8 easily. You could definitely add some veggies if you've got ambitious eaters or all adults -- roasted red peppers, onions, mushrooms, a little spinach -- all of those would be good, I'm sure.

This is the way I made it when my kids were younger. I've cut way back on the fat in the original recipe simply by making smarter purchases. Instead of regular Jimmy Dean pork sausage, I bought the lower fat version. And when they say "low fat" they mean it! There was barely ANY grease in the pan when I fried it up to use in the casserole, as you can see in this picture:
I have to say that it tasted great in the casserole... I didn't miss the grease at all! I also purchased Low Fat Crescent Rolls instead of the original. You absolutely can NOT tell the difference!
Pillsbury Reduced Fat Crescent Rolls
The next time you need something for more than 2 people to make for brunch, try this. Whether it's a special occasion, or you just want to make it special, this is a great way to go. It's really prefect on a cool fall morning. Your family and friends will eat it up!


Breakfast Pizza
serves 6 - 8

1 pkg. Pillsbury Reduced Fat Crescent Rolls (8 count)
6 eggs
1/3 c. low-fat milk (I used 1%)
1 roll Jimmy Dean reduced fat sausage, regular flavor, 10 oz.
1 1/2 c. part skim shredded mozzarella cheese
pinch of salt and pepper
a few chives for serving
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. In a large non-stick skillet, cook your sausage, breaking it up into small pieces. Cook it until completely done, with no pink showing. Remove the sausage to a small bowl and wipe any excess grease from the pan. Set aside to use for the apples. Spray a 9X13" Pyrex casserole dish with cooking spray. Unroll the crescent rolls in one piece and fit them into the bottom of the dish, pressing the seams together, like this:
Unroll the crescent rolls in one piece for the crust.
Layer the cooked sausage over the crust and sprinkle with the cheese:
Crumble the sausage on top of the rolls  
Add cheese on top of the sausage.

Beat the eggs together with the milk and a pinch of salt and pepper. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the pizza. Cook at 375 degrees for 20 minutes until lightly browned and "set" in the middle. Sprinkle with chives if desired, because after all, it's got to look pretty too! We eat with our eyes first, right? 
Breakfast Pizza
While the pizza is cooking, prepare your apples.

Fried Apples

5-6 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and sliced
2 T. Land o' Lakes Butter
2 tsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
Melt the butter (medium heat) in the same pan you cooked the sausage. Add the apples, making sure they have good contact with the pan, so that they begin to brown slightly. After a few minutes, stir them gently, with a spatula, and turn them over so that both sides of each slice gets cooked. Sprinkle the apples with the sugar and continue to cook for about 5 minutes and then add the cinnamon. Be sure not to over-do the cinnamon. You want them to be lightly sweetened with just a touch of cinnamon. 
Sprinkle them lightly with cinnamon.


Continue to stir the apples until they begin to soften and release their juices. When you are there, cover the pan, and cook for 3 more minutes. Don't want to cook them to mush, you want them to retain their shape and texture. Turn them off and hold them until brunch is ready to be served. 


Fried Apples. There are 5 fairly large Granny Smith apples in the skillet.
They cook down a bit. You can add them gradually as you cook them so they don't fly all over the kitchen! 
Bon Appetit! 


Sunday, September 28, 2014

Drunken Wienies -- A "Spirited" Appetizer!

Whenever we have more than a few folks over, my husband always asks that I make "Drunken Wienies". What the heck are those you may ask? You've definitely had them, or something really similar: They are simply cocktail franks (or wieners) -- or  little hot dogs -- or mini-sausages -- in a savory sauce. There are a couple of things that might be a little different about the way I do it. One  is that I add bourbon to the sauce mixture. Hence the name, Drunken Wienies.  I also add some hot sauce and, at the insistence of my husband, cayenne pepper. If you don't like things real spicy, omit the cayenne pepper. The hot sauce adds good flavor and just a touch of heat.

Since the festive season is almost upon us and tailgate season is in full swing, I thought I'd share this super simple, tasty appetizer. This also has the advantage of being fairly budget friendly. They also reheat perfectly, so absolutely make them ahead and save some time the day of the gathering.

Hey, don't turn your nose up, I know it's not "foodie chic", but I guarantee, it will be a favorite at your next gathering, especially if you've got a bunch of hungry men in the group!

Drunken Wienies
For 20 -25 people -- Appetizer Serving

2 pkg Hillshire Farms "Lil' Smokies" or Cocktail Wieners (about 70 pieces)
1/2 c. grape jelly
1/2 c. Heinz chili sauce    
1/4 c. Bourbon     
1 T. KC Masterpiece barbecue sauce        
2 T. Texas Pete Hot Sauce
1/8 - 1/4  tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)

First, make the sauce: In a medium sized sauce pan, melt the grape jelly with the chili sauce, bourbon, barbecue sauce and hot sauce. Make sure the grape jelly has completely melted before you add the wieners. 
Next, add the cayenne pepper, if using, and the mini-wienies. Cook for 20 minutes or until the wieners are hot.  

Serve it immediately. Or you can put it into a small dish to reheat later. Or you can place it into a small sized crock pot over low heat. 

This is easily doubled or tripled for a large crowd. 

Plan to have about 3 wienies per person, more if there are a lot of men in the group.

Sing the "Men" song now. That's what my guys do. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Orange Chicken

My husband LOVES orange chicken. It seems like no matter where we eat "Chinese" or get "Chinese" take out, Orange Chicken is what he orders. I feel like that is probably one of the worst dishes you can order off the menu -- the chicken is fried, the sauce has something obviously sweet in it and there aren't even too many vegetables. I always scold him about his choice, but alas, it really does NO good. So, I decided to try to make some myself. Since this was my first try at making a "fried" Chinese dish, I figured I better follow a recipe. I saw "The Pioneer Woman" do it on the Food Network, so I used her recipe. Here's how mine turned out:


I must say that the dish was absolutely delicious, but it honestly was kind of a pain to make. Frying up the chicken thighs which had been soaked in egg white and corn starch was not easy. I don't know if my oil wasn't hot enough or if it wasn't deep enough, but the pieces of chicken kept sinking to the bottom of my pan and sticking! That made the pan a mess to clean up. On the plus side, you could absolutely make this dish ahead of time, like way early in the day and then just put it together at meal time. I used the orange zest as she suggested and it added a lot of flavor. The sweetener that I chose for the dish was honey, since that's what I found first in the cupboard! I also halved the recipe to make just enough for the two of us. I added broccoli, which is sometimes included when you order take-out, to make things a little more balanced and healthy. I also used a 50/50 mixture of brown and white rice, with that same interest in mind. If you feel like experimenting in the kitchen, go for it. The taste was absolutely wonderful!

Here's the recipe I used :  Pioneer Woman Orange Chicken

Let me know how it goes, I'd love to hear. Maybe I can figure out what I can do to keep the chicken from sinking and sticking! I'd make it again if I could!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Deconstructing Boef Bourguignon

I've always loved Boef Bourguignon. My mom made an abbreviated version of it while I was growing up, using 2 different kinds of canned soup. Once I started to cook on my own, I wanted to do it the correct way. I've followed (almost) the recipe of the original celebrity chef, Julia Child, for many years.

If you read this blog, I've written about my love of Julia and all things French several times. Here's my original Boef Bourguignon post from a while back. I still love that recipe, but I decided to tinker around with it a little bit.

Since I love to cook, and it was my birthday, I got to cook and eat what I wanted. That's always been our family tradition: You get to pick your birthday dinner and eat what you want on your special day. My husband can make a great breakfast, and is an excellent sandwich maker, but I pretty much rule at dinnertime. SO, I did exactly what I wanted to do this past weekend: I tinkered around with a recipe and made what I wanted, and what I did was to deconstruct Boef Bourguignon.

What I mean was that instead of using bits of stew beef or the end of a larger roast, I used a whole steak. I got the idea for this watching Ina Garten, my current favorite Food Network chef, making a dinner to deliver to a friend for a dinner party. Ina was a caterer first, so I figured she'd know all about celebratory meals and presentation. I've altered her recipe a bit, eliminating some of the butter and thickening agents she recommended. I used my favorite cut of steak, an inch thick piece of tenderloin. In the original recipe, the beef is summered a long time in rich, wine gravy and then served over something, either noodles, or potatoes, or even rice, as my mom served it. In this version, I seared the steaks, made a delicious sauce and served it with mashed potatoes. This recipe has the advantage of allowing you to serve the steaks RARE, which is the way I really enjoy them. It was a winner! I wrote this recipe for 2, since only my husband and I were at home, but you could easily double it. Using a whole steak per person made it seem like more of a celebratory meal unlike a stew, which while delicious isn't the most elegant meal. This meal has the added bonus of one that is very easily made in advance. You only have to heat the sauce and finish cooking the steaks at meal time.
Deconstructed Boef Bourguignon with Mashed Potatoes


Deconstructed Boef Bourguignon
For 2

2 1" thick pieces of beef tenderloin
2 rashers of bacon
2 T. butter, divided use
1 c. dry red wine
1/2 beef broth, stock or consomme' 
1 tsp. minced fresh garlic
6 - 8 baby carrots, thinly sliced
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 T. tomato paste
12 oz. cremini mushrooms (baby portobellos)
12 pearl onions (frozen is fine, that's what I used)
Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper
Mashed potatoes, baked potatoes or egg noodles for serving

First and very importantly, dry your steaks by draining them on a paper towel. They won't brown properly unless you do this. I know that the picture is kind of gross, but this is a very important step. 
Dry those steaks! 
While the steak is drying, mince the garlic and clean the mushrooms. Cut them in half or quarters if they are very large. Dry them as well, draining on a paper towel. This is important for the same reason as the beef, they need to be dry to cook properly. NEVER argue with Julia. 

Heat a medium sized frying pan over low heat. Choose a pan at least 3" deep, with a heavy bottom, so that the steaks will brown evenly and not stick. Add the two rashers of bacon and fry them until crisp. 

Remove the bacon to drain on yet another paper towel. Pour off almost all the bacon grease from the pan, leaving just enough to keep the steak from sticking. Turn the heat up to medium and add the steaks. Cook the steaks about 2 minutes per side, turning once. you only want to sear them. 
Sear steaks briefly, only a minute or 2 to brown them.
After searing put the steaks aside on a plate, and add 1 T. butter to the skillet. Scrape up all the browned bits in the bottom. Don't let the butter burn! Add the garlic and sliced carrots to the pan, and keep stirring and scraping for a minute or so. Add the red wine and keep on scraping and stirring. Let it come to a boil and then add the beef broth. Drop the thyme and tomato paste into the sauce. Sprinkle in 1/2 tsp. Kosher salt and a few grindings of fresh black pepper. 
Fresh time and tomato paste going into the sauce. 
Bring this to a boil, cover the pan, turn it down to low heat and let the sauce cook for 20 - 30 minutes, stirring every now and again to make sure nothing is sticking. This will smell heavenly and make everyone in the hungry. While the sauce is cooking, melt 1 T. butter over medium heat, in a small non-stick skillet. When the butter is melted and the foam has subsided (wait for the foam part, or Julia will haunt you), and then add the mushrooms. Cook the mushrooms until they are lightly browned, stirring them to make sure each surface area is browned. Turn them off while waiting for the sauce to finish cooking. When the carrots are tender, add the mushrooms, crumbled bacon and the pearl onions to the sauce.
We love mushrooms! The pearl onions make it seem special. 

Doesn't that look good? Cover that pan once again, and let the flavors come together, cooking for at least 10 minutes. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning, adding a little more salt and pepper as needed. Be careful here, you may not need any more (I didn't). It depends on how salty your beef broth is, how strong the wine flavor is and how much liquid the mushrooms give off. TASTE! Don't just add. You can remove the thyme stems if they are still whole and visible. The leaves will just fall off. 
At this point, you can refrigerate everything (Separately! Don't put the steak in the sauce until you are ready to reheat it!) and heat everything up later in the day, or even the next day. When you are ready to eat, get the sauce hot again, and add the steaks into it. Cover and let them cook for 4 - 5 minutes for rare steaks, 6 -7 minutes for medium. If you like your meat well done, don't bother with tenderloin, just follow the first, original recipe. No need to spend the extra money on good steaks! 

Serve along side mashed potatoes (our choice) or over baked potatoes or egg noodles. 

I promise, this was YUMMY!