Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Three-Cheese Baked Pasta with Sweet Italian Chicken Sausage

Not unlike my typical sojourns to the market, yesterday's visit was made sans a grocery list. Having been away for a few days, I knew we needed some of the basics...milk, eggs, bread, yogurt, produce...and I knew I needed to think about dinners (for at least a few nights). However, while I recognize the benefits of a well-stocked pantry, I am definitely one of those run-to-the-store-several-times-a-week people. It's a habit I acquired while living in Europe (more than ten years ago, so clearly not a good excuse!)...and continue today. The odd thing is I'm a detail person and a lover of lists so this lack of planning when it comes to grocery shopping is very out of character for me.

Though initially I found the need to shop nearly every day in Europe somewhat aggravating (clearly in the mindset of "how do you ever get anything else done when you're always running to the store?")...I do admit that it didn't take long to change my way of thinking.

The stores in our little village in Holland were miniscule compared to our mega-stores here. Instead of a mile-long cereal aisle, there were just a few shelves (and limited variety). I remember keeping things pretty simple on our first excursions, realizing that we needed time to figure out the language a bit more in order to decipher the labels and packaging that didn't provide pictorial hints. But it didn't take long to venture out from our comfort zone or one-stop shopping. While we'd hit our little market for lots of our essentials, we quickly adapted to outings that oftentimes included two or three additional slager, de kaaswinkel, de visboer, of de bakkerij (for meat, cheese, fish, and baked goods, respectively). Then, of course, there were the village market days when fresh farm produce, flowers, meats, and other delicacies were brought in. Strangely enough, shopping quickly became a treat of sorts. Everything was so fresh; plans for dinner could be based on whatever looked good that particular day; you never had so much to put away that unloading the groceries was ever a task; and, it was a bit of a social connection. Whether you felt like it or not, you needed to get out, about, and among the people. There's a lot to be said for this social aspect, particularly if you are new to a culture and trying to acclimate yourself...and your family. forward to now and not much has changed. The environment is a bit different but I still make far too many trips to the market in any given week for it to be considered an economical or organized approach. I do, however, try to make some sort of list. That being said, I admit that I kind of like my unencumbered approach to shopping and meal planning. It's so unlike how I conduct the rest of my life that I suppose it's entertaining (or therapeutic?). Whatever the rationale, as long as I come home with what I need I figure these brief reprieves from staying on task will continue. And while I feel totally happy and content figuring things out as I go, it may seem a bit scattered to those who are truly adamant about making lists (and not veering from them).

I usually hit the produce section first. Yesterday I quickly snapped up some organic baby artichokes. I hesitated momentarily as artichokes are kind of like my version of brussel sprouts to my husband. He'll eat them, or happily move them to the side, but they aren't his favorite. I happen to LOVE them...fresh, canned, frozen, marinated, whatever! Thinking I would hold off an artichoke dish for later in the week, I decided to grab some veggies for a great, satisfying and flavorful Thai soup. Given our quick return to winter weather this past week, it seemed like a good idea until I realized that this, again, was more in my own zone of favorites. Fortunately, a swing along the meat counter triggered my recall of this recipe. It's meaty and satisfying...perfect for a cool, dreary day...and it's cheesy and wonderfully flavorful. (A bit of a scattered approach, perhaps, but three meals did get planned and I can always make a list next time.)

I particularly like using a ground sweet Italian chicken sausage in this dish but I've used other Italian sausages in the past to great success. It's really just a matter of personal preference. The same goes with your selection of cheeses. I like using at least three different varieties and have found that mozzarella, fontina, and parmesan work beautifully together. And I recommend selecting a more robust fontina (if you go with this cheese) as it serves as a nice complement to the more mild flavor of the mozzarella.

While this dish may hold a tad more calories than an artichoke sauté or Thai soup, it is definitely a family favorite. You can always have salad tomorrow! And...the really nice part of this dish is it comes together very quickly, which is particularly appealing if your lack of a list or plan results in a longer market visit than you may have intended.

Three-Cheese Baked Pasta with Sweet Italian Chicken Sausage
serves 4 to 6

3/4 pound penne rigate pasta (I used an organic durum semolina)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups sweet yellow onion, sliced (1 medium onion)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound sweet Italian chicken sausage, ground
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 28-ounce can whole Roma tomatoes (I used a San Marzano tomato)
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano

2 cups low-moisture mozzarella cheese, grated
1 cup fontina cheese, grated (recommend a robust variety)
3/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Bring pot of water to boil for pasta. When ready, add a generous handful of salt to water and drop in pasta. Cook for 9 to 11 minutes, until al dente. Remove from heat, drain, and set aside.
3. While pasta is cooking, add olive oil to a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic to pan and sauté until onion is soft. Move onion to sides of pan and drop ground sausage into pan, breaking it up as it sautés and browns.

Add salt and pepper to flavor meat. Once nicely browned (about 7 to 10 minutes), reincorporate the onion and garlic mixture.

Add tomatoes and break them up to incorporate into the mixture. Add basil and oregano. Season with additional salt and pepper, to taste. Sauté mixture for another 2 to 5 minutes, on low heat, to allow flavors to meld a bit. Remove from heat.
4. Lightly spray baking dish with olive oil. Ladle two spoonfuls of tomato sauce into bottom of dish. Layer half of pasta over top. Ladle half of remaining tomato sauce over top of first pasta layer. Sprinkle half of three cheeses over top of tomato sauce layer. Repeat with another layer each of remaining pasta, sauce, and cheeses.

Place in oven and bake, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden and bubbly.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Super Lemony Yogurt Cake with Lemon Juice Glaze

This little lemon cake is a bit of a chameleon, making an equally grand entrance whether served with brunch or dressed up a bit for a light evening dessert.

While I admit I kind of forget about this recipe through the fall and winter, the slightest hint of spring brings it quickly to mind. Not only is it super simple to make, but its light and refreshing lemony tang makes it a perfect warm weather option when you're looking to make a cake.

I especially like its understated elegance...just a simple loaf-pan cake drizzled with glaze. It's unassuming and unpretentious, yet that very simplicity is what makes it such an appealing little cake. And while lemon cakes aren't exactly unique, the addition of yogurt and a generous dose of fresh lemon juice and zest make this particular cake especially moist, super lemony, and deliciously delightful. Partnered with some fresh cut berries, its a great spring or summer dessert.

Super Lemony Yogurt Cake with Lemon Juice Glaze
adapted from The Barefoot Contessa
makes 1 loaf

for cake:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup whole-milk yogurt (I've used Nancy's Organic Whole Milk Yogurt as well as organic plain Greek yogurt..and both work very well)
1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
3 extra-large eggs
4 teaspoons grated lemon zest (about 4 lemons)
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil

for glaze:
1 cup confectioners' sugar
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8 1/2" x 4 1/2" x 2 1/2" loaf pan. Line bottom of greased pan with a piece of greased parchment paper. Flour pan.

2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt in one bowl. Set aside.

3. In a larger bowl, whisk together yogurt, 1 cup sugar, eggs, lemon zest, 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, vanilla, and lemon extract. Slowly incorporate the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Whisk until well blended. Then, with a rubber spatula, fold the vegetable oil into the batter until it is well incorporated. Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for approximately 50 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

4. While cake is baking, cook the remaining 1/3 cup lemon juice and the remaining 1/3 cup sugar in a small pan until the sugar is completely dissolved and the mixture appears clear. Set aside.

5. When cake is done, allow it to cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes. Carefully remove the cake from the pan and place it on a baking rack positioned over a sheet pan. While still warm, gently poke holes in the top of the cake surface (with a long toothpick or thin skewer). Pour lemon-sugar mixture over cake, allowing it to soak in. Cool completely.

6. Combine confectioners' sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice to make glaze. Pour over cooled cake. Serve with fresh berries, if desired.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Barbecue Chicken Salad

Barbecue chicken salads are fairly common on many restaurant menus. But it wasn't until I had it at a friend's home several years ago that the thought finally hit me...why have I never made this? It's a super easy, quick-to-table, satisfying salad that you can load with just about anything you like. The only standards being the shredded chicken slathered with BBQ sauce and, of course, the crunchy greens drizzled with Ranch dressing. The whole BBQ sauce-Ranch dressing combination is what makes this salad so appealing.

It's not really much of a recipe. It's more of a chop, drop, and dress meal that can be on the table in 15 or 20 minutes, depending on which direction you go with your ingredients. If you roast or boil your chicken, that will add another 30 minutes or so. If pressed for time, I grab a roasted chicken at the market and shred the breast meat for this dish and hold the rest of it for another meal. And you can certainly prep your own BBQ sauce, but bottled works great. I happened to used Annie's Naturals Organic BBQ sauce and really liked it (though I've tried many different brands over the years and all have tasted great). The same goes with the Ranch bottled, whisk up a quick buttermilk variety with a packaged mix (I used a Whole Foods Ranch mix that calls for fresh buttermilk and mayonnaise), or create your own.

In addition to the "standards" of shredded BBQ chicken and Ranch dressing, I recommend using romaine lettuce. It's a good sturdy green that keeps its crunch and holds up well to the boldness of the chicken. Then you just add your favorite goodies. I like ones that have good flavor and some radish, celery, green onions, cilantro, and jicama. I also always add a cheese...usually diced or cubed, rather than shredded. This time out I diced up some pepper jack. Diced tomato tastes great...and I always add some variety of bean. This time I used a can of organic salad beans which is just a combination of pinto, garbanzo and kidney beans.

However you plate it up, this is a refreshing, flavorful, satisfying salad that makes a great, quick weeknight meal.

Barbecue Chicken Salad
serve 2

2 cups shredded cooked chicken breast, cooled
1/2 cup barbecue sauce (more or less depending on your preference)

3 cups sliced romaine lettuce
3/4 cup diced jicama
1/3 cup sliced green onions
1/3 cup sliced radishes
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 large tomato, diced
1/2 cup diced pepper jack cheese
1 can salad beans (or preferred variety)
1/2 cup Ranch dressing (more or less depending on preference)

1. Mix barbecue sauce into shredded chicken, until you get a nice coating without excess. Cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge.

2. In a large bowl, combine romaine and next 7 ingredients, through beans.

3. Drizzle lightly with Ranch dressing. To serve, mound salad in center of plate and top with BBQ chicken. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Turkey Burgers with Pepper Jack Cheese & Simple Avocado Spread

There is definitely something to be said for a juicy, cheesy, beef burger loaded with the works. Been there...done that. They ARE good and for many years we did enjoy them. But tastes and eating habits ebb and flow, and changes are often made along the way. One change we made several years ago was to eliminate red meat from our diets. Giving up beef, however, did not mean giving up burgers. As a result we've tried a myriad of replacements... some we've loved, some we've liked, and some were just plain terrible.

A great meaty burger needs to have the texture and feel of a true burger. It needs to be juicy and flavorful. It needs to work with various condiments needs to hold up well to being smushed inside a bun.

Ground turkey makes a nice beef replacement when it comes to all the physical features of a burger but it requires some flavor enhancements to truly compete. It's a lean meat so it just doesn't have the same flavor as ground beef...even lean beef. Yet it's also a meat that will beautifully assume whatever flavors you want to incorporate. In addition to adding some flavor, you need to "beef up" the moisture content in ground turkey, or you'll end up with a very dry burger. And...using a combination of lean ground turkey breast and lean ground dark turkey meat will not only help you avoid the "blandness" that turkey can have but will also up its flavor factor.

In this particular burger, there's a good dose of fresh green and red bell peppers, garlic powder, coriander, onion, salt, and pepper. Then it's topped with pepper jack cheese which gives you a spicy, gooey, little zip that is nicely complemented by a spread of fresh avocado, sliced tomato, red onion, and hearty romaine leaves.

While I make no effort to convert beef burger lovers, I do love to serve these to those I know and far... they haven't failed to deliver.

Turkey Burgers with Pepper Jack Cheese & Simple Avocado Spread served on Whole Wheat Buns
serves 4

1 pound lean ground turkey breast
1/2 pound lean ground dark turkey meat
1/2 cup dried bread crumbs
1/2 cup finely diced red bell pepper
1/2 cup finely diced green bell pepper
1/3 cup finely diced red onion
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
additional salt and pepper, to season patties
4-6 slices pepper jack cheese

4-8 slices tomato
4-8 leaves romaine lettuce
1 avocado, mashed
splash fresh lemon juice
4 whole wheat buns

1/3 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons honey mustard

1. Combine first 11 ingredients, turkey through black pepper, in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly to incorporate all ingredients. If it's still too mushy, or won't hold together, add a bit more bread crumbs. Divide mixture into four parts and form four burger patties.

2. Heat olive oil in a large skillet and add patties. Lightly season patties with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Cook over medium high heat for about 5 minutes, then flip. Let patties cook about 2 minutes before adding sliced cheese. Cook for another 3 minutes, until done. If cheese needs more time to melt, remove skillet from heat and cover.

3. Light toast buns in oven. In a small bowl, mash avocado and add a splash of fresh lemon juice, and salt and pepper, to taste. Set aside and remove buns from oven.

4. In a small bowl, whisk mayonnaise and honey mustard.

5. Spread buns with honey mustard/mayo. Place patties on bottom buns and top each with a dollop of avocado spread, a slice or two of fresh tomato, a couple slices of red onion, and a leaf or two of romaine. Sandwich with top bun.

Other flavor enhancers: chopped green chiles, fresh minced jalapeño pepper, worchestershire sauce or soy sauce (instead of salt), freshly chopped cilantro or italian parsley, salsa.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Fluffy Egg and Herbed Chévre Scramble on Whole Grain Toast, Topped with Sautéed Mushrooms (Served with Sautéed Kale)

We've always loved great breakfasts in our home. The thing is, however, they rarely get served up before noon. Occasionally we'll make a big brunch of breakfast items but, more often than not, we eat these "breakfasts" as a late lunch or dinner. I admit that we are kind of funny when it comes to messing with our morning Oatmeal Ritual, but this isn't the only reason for our little scheduling issue. We like to be able to sit and savor a great breakfast...and most mornings simply don't offer this luxury.

I ran across this idea for a fluffy egg scramble on one of my favorite blogs, Sunday-Suppers, which is based in New York and recently featured an egg scramble from a local restaurant they visited. I'm thinking that the particular scramble they referenced might have been made with egg whites. Being on the opposite coast with no plans to get to NYC any time soon, I decided to attempt my own version. I happened to make my little tester dish using three egg whites and one yolk and I think this 3:1 ratio worked really well. (You can certainly omit the yolk and I think it would be just as yummy.) I also incorporated some herbed chévre cheese into the eggs which was especially tasty...adding not only to the overall flavor but to its great fluffy volume as well.

And then there's the sautéed mushrooms!!! I'm really not an impartial judge when it comes to sautéed mushrooms, believing that they'd be good on pretty much anything. But here...they are great! They add a wonderful, earthy, meaty flavor to the scramble...rounding it out beautifully. And...when you load all this onto a thick slice of whole grain bread that you've lightly toasted in the oven, then sprinkle it with a touch of fresh, chopped flat-leaf parsley...well, it's just plain GOOD.

I could have easily stopped here and been entirely happy with this dish. However, I had some leftover lacinato kale and remembered a recipe I had run across not too long ago. I never clipped it as it was a pretty simple sauté...just kale, red onion, garlic, and toasted pine nuts. It's a great, healthy, flavorful side to this scramble. It's so good I even toyed with the idea of placing the kale right on the bread and then topping it with the eggs and mushrooms...but I refrained.

However you choose to plate this dish up, the combination really works. The eggs are extra light, airy, and fluffy...with a subtle hint of chévre peeking through. The mushrooms are delectable (no surprise!). And the quick sauté of kale could not be easier or better matched for a healthy side that offers just a sliver of sweetness in the caramelized onion and toasted pine nuts.

Fluffy Egg and Herbed Chévre Scramble on Whole Grain Toast, Topped with Sautéed Mushrooms
Sautéed Lacinato Kale, Red Onion, and Garlic, with Toasted Pine Nuts
(Makes 1 hearty serving)

egg scramble:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 egg whites
1 egg yolk
2 tablespoons herbed chévre cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
1 thick (approx. 1 1/4") slice whole grain bread

mushroom sauté
1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup red onion, thinly sliced
8 to 10 mushrooms (I used a combination of crimini and shitake), cleaned and sliced
salt and pepper, to taste
minced fresh parsley, to finish

1 small bunch kale (approximately 8 to 10 leaves), stems removed and discarded, leaves sliced
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper, to taste
scant 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted

1. Begin with mushrooms: Heat 2 tablespoons unsalted butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat and add sliced red onion. Sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, until onions are soft. Add sliced mushrooms and continue to sauté, turning often, until mushrooms are lightly browned...about 4 or 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Cover and set aside.

2. Heat oven to 375 degrees F and place bread on baking sheet. Set aside.

3. Begin kale: Remove hard stems of kale by simply folding leaf in half and cutting "spine" out.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add red onion and garlic and sauté until onion is soft and slightly caramelized...about 4 to 5 minutes. Add sliced kale to skillet and sauté until kale begins to wilt but retains its deep green color...about 4 to 6 minutes. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Add toasted pine nuts to kale and heat through. Cover and set aside.

4. Begin eggs: Place egg whites in one bowl, and yolk in another. Lightly whisk whites until they thicken a bit and get foamy.

Separately whisk egg yolk and then fold into whites. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a skillet over medium heat. Add egg mixture to skillet, drop dollops of chévre on top, and turn egg mixture as you would with any traditional scramble.

Pop your bread in the oven and watch closely so that it toasts very lightly...just a few minutes. (if you prefer to broil it can do that as well.) Continue turning your eggs. They will look a bit foamy at first but they come together quickly...though fluffier and more airy than traditional scrambled eggs. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Remove eggs from heat ...and bread from oven.

5. Place slice of bread on plate and top with eggs, then mushrooms. Sprinkle chopped fresh parsley over top. Serve with sautéed kale.

Note: you'll have a little kale and mushrooms left over, using the portions recommended...but not much.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Pasta e Fagioli

We are seeing little hints that Spring is just around the corner. Buds are suddenly appearing on the long-barren branches of our many trees; colorful bulbs are bursting their way through our winter-hardened soil; rays of sunshine are intermittently peaking through our (too often) cloud-laden skies; birds are slowly returning from their southern destinations to serenade us with the morning dawn; and, we've actually had a few consecutive days of downright balmy weather (in the upper 50's!!).

I love to witness these little whispers of Springtime. And while I know it's only the beginning of March (and we can still have a few cold snaps into May), there is something comforting about seeing the change of seasons...each offering its own language and landscape to distinguish it from the next.

Today, however, the temps dropped a bit and the skies delivered a little sprinkle...just enough to keep us from getting too overly eager. Rather than let this little drizzle dampen my spirits, I figured it simply allowed me the opportunity for a little "pasta fazool."

Pasta e Fagioli (pasta and beans) is a great comfort dish that beautifully straddles the soup-stew-pasta categories...falling into one or the other depending on how much broth, pasta, or beans you add. It is a traditional Italian "peasant" dish that doesn't call for meat (if you are being true to its origin) but many recipes seem to start with a bit of pancetta or bacon...a great addition, in my opinion, as it really gives this dish a lot of its rich hearty flavor. And while many recipes have the same key ingredients -- garlic, carrots, celery, onion, tomatoes, beans, and water (or stock) -- I love to add a bit of a sturdy green...lacinato kale in this instance. Whether you incorporate kale, spinach, or some other green, I think it not only adds to the beauty and flavor of the soup but, more importantly, to its "healthy" quotient.

So while we are eagerly awaiting the true arrival of Spring...or at least a good number of Spring-like days linked in a row...the intermittent drizzle and cloudy skies that continue to appear just mean that a hearty dish like this Pasta e Fagioli can be enjoyed. So...let it rain!

Pasta e Fagioli
A Savory Nest recipe
serves 4

3 tablespoons olive oil
4 ounces (about 4 to 5 strips) turkey bacon (I used an organic, uncured, smoked turkey bacon but pancetta or regular bacon can be substituted)
1 cup yellow onion, diced
1 cup carrots, diced
3/4 cup celery, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
2 15-ounce cans Great Northern white beans (cannellini or any other small white bean), rinsed and drained
1 14-ounce can diced, no-salt, tomatoes with their juice
4 cups chicken broth (vegetable stock or water)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
8 stalks of lacinato kale (or other sturdy green), chopped (omitting last bits of hard stalk)
3/4 pound small pasta (ditalini or elbow...I used orecchiette)
extra-virgin olive oil, for finishing
grated parmesan cheese, for finishing

1. In a large dutch oven or stock pot, heat olive oil and add turkey bacon. Sauté bacon for 3 to 5 minutes, to brown. Add onion, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, and basil and cook, stirring often, until veggies have softened. Add beans, tomatoes, broth, salt, and pepper. Simmer stock for approximately 20 minutes. Then take 2 to 3 ladles of soup and whirl it in a blender. Add blended soup back to stock base.

2. Once you've added blended soup back to stock, add greens and pasta. Simmer soup for another 20 to 30 minutes to allow pasta and greens to cook through. Season with additional salt and pepper, to taste. Ladle soup into bowls, drizzle with a bit of extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkle with grated parmesan cheese.

Note: you may need to add additional stock or water, as soup will thicken as it sits a bit.