Monday, September 27, 2010

Italian-Style Shepard's Pie... Topped with Provolone Cheese, Creamy Polenta & Spinach-Arugula Pesto

{Pacific Foods Everyday Chef Challenge -- Part Two}

At this time of year, fall and football are more or less synonymous terms in our home. Though I've never been a die-hard football fan -- and don't expect to become one anytime soon -- I have to admit that college ball has kind of taken hold of my senses in the last five years or so. Until this happened, the onset of football season meant only that we'd have something to do on a rainy weekend when there was absolutely nothing else on our docket.

Now, however, the start of college play brings a familiar and much-welcomed rhythmical cadence to our fall; a unifying thread that ties our family together despite the miles of road between us. We know that at the moment play begins... whether our vantage point is from a down-filled couch or a stadium bleacher... we are in the same moment. There is something comforting and soothing about the sounds we'll share -- the play-by-play and color commentary; the enthusiastic pitch and fervor of the crowd; and the swift rumble of the gridiron. It's a rough and tumble bit of poetry that we welcome each week, sometimes with great pleasure... and sometimes with dismay. In either case, it's a tradition that is often met with a roaring fire and something simmering away on the stove to be served up at halftime.

With this week's second (and final) Everyday Chef Challenge, sponsored by Pacific Natural Foods, I couldn't help but reflect on our Saturday tradition... happy to think up another easy one-pot meal like the soups and chili we so love.

Using Pacific Foods' Organic French Onion Soup and fresh spinach as kickoff ingredients, this Italian-Style Shepard's Pie gives a little wink and nod to the "French onion soup" that makes up its rich broth -- with a thin layer of provolone cheese dropped over the top to melt down into the bowl, and up and over its sides. Then the whole thing is capped with a creamy topping of polenta that's dotted with a dollop of fresh spinach-arugula pesto once out of the oven. It's satisfying, savory... and sensational!

Chock full of zesty Italian chicken sausage (both mild and hot) and lots of fresh veggies -- like zucchini, carrots, and spinach -- this dish delivers a distinctly Italian twist to its more traditional brethren... perfectly capped by the extra "3-P" addition of provolone, polenta, and pesto.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Roasted Eggplant, Artichoke & Tomato Bruschetta with Lemon-Basil Fromage Blanc... A "Toast" of Thanks!

Anyone that has visited this space in the past few weeks is well aware that there's a little party going on... the Everyday Chef Challenge, sponsored by Pacific Natural Foods.

We've just completed Week One of the Challenge... congrats to Elana's Pantry for a winning entry... and we're now heading into the second, and final round. This week, the five bloggers will be busy coming up with their own spinach and Pacific Natural Food's creamy soup creation; recipes that will be posted on Wednesday, September 29. In the meantime, however, the party is still in full swing with loads of recipes being submitted by everyday chefs from all over the country. Take a peek... they all look pretty delicious! And don't feel like you need to hover against the wall waiting to be asked to dance, just pop onto the floor with your own entry. In the end, your favorite blogger recipe and favorite everyday chef recipe will result in those two chefs heading to Napa to attend a two-day culinary bootcamp. Fun stuff!

While I'm busy putting together my own final recipe, I thought I'd offer a little toast... in the form of this bruschetta... as my way of saying "thanks" for your votes of support this past week -- just a little something to snack on while you wait for us to return; a scrumptious little morsel to nibble while you think of something you might like to enter at some point this week; a tasty little toast... to you! So... settle in, look around, make yourself comfortable. And, make sure you pop by again next week to see what I've come up with for the final challenge. Cheers... and thanks!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Everyday Chef Challenge Recipe... and a Test

Hmm...a challenge and a test?

First, the challenge...
Being invited to join Pacific Food's Everyday Chef Challenge, along with a very accomplished group of bloggers (and talented cooks) -- Elana's Pantry, Herbivoracious, Aggie's Kitchen, and 5 Dollar Dinners -- has been very fun.

The Challenge presented to us for Week One (and to you... see previous post for details...) was to come up with a recipe that incorporates both mushrooms and a Pacific Foods' broth of our choice. After a little thinking, I came up with this Mushroom-Parmesan Crusted Chicken Breast served over Braised French Green Lentils with Roasted Vegetables.

I know... that's a long title. In one word, it's "YUM."

But it wasn't until "T minus 20" that I ended up with this entry. And that's where the "test" part of this exercise came into play.

For me, making decisions in life kind of comes down to a variety of personal "litmus" tests, depending on the situation presented. There's a litmus I depend on when judging character or integrity. There's a litmus I use to determine whether to embark on a particular path or not. Etc., etc. A lot of it is really just about trusting your gut.

And, yes... I have a cooking litmus. It's pretty simple, covering just four key points. The first three are very basic: Does it look good? Smell good? Taste good? Fairly obvious points.

Even our dog has this litmus! For him, it's all about C-O-O-K-I-E-S (so much so that we can't even say the word around him... unless we intend to deliver the goods). You see, this food is the end all for our dog. Cookies totally pass the look-smell-taste test for Bosley. Quite honestly, it's how we get him to listen to us when he's otherwise predisposed not to (I realize we'd totally fail a dog trainer's litmus on this point). All we need to say is "Cookie, Boz... Cookie, Cookie" and he's front and center within seconds flat! The only downside to this perk is that anyone within earshot clearly thinks our large, sweet brute of a dog is named "Cookie."

The point here is that Boz would have cookies anytime... again... and again!

And that's the fourth (and final) point of my little cooking litmus: Would I make this dish again?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Reflecting on Mushrooms... and a Challenge

This is me... NOT at my computer working on the project for which this blog was initially created... but instead, contemplating over a cup of coffee.

You see... I've been invited to a party... and I need to do a little thinking about what to bring. It's a party celebrating mushrooms and a Pacific Foods broth (of my choosing).

Sounds like fun, huh? I'm not sure if there will be any dancing but I do know that there will be a bit of slicing, dicing, chopping, and mixing... all in the interest of great food.

Oh... and YOU are invited too! And you don't even have to leave your home... or figure out what to wear.

It's a virtual party... online. I think there will be a great mix of people, all of whom are equally excited about mushrooms, broths, and such. We certainly are...

So... you should pop by. And, when you do, let your favorite blogger (recipe) know you've stopped in by leaving them a vote (or two... or three... or more)... think of it as a little hostess gift.

One of the best parts about this gathering is that it's a B.Y.O.R. (bring your own recipe) -- for a chance to win a trip to Napa! Yep... Pacific Foods will be awarding two trips to Napa for the best recipes submitted (those that get the most votes). One prize will be awarded to an Everyday Chef Blogger (there are five of us that have been invited; a group I must say that I'm very honored to have been included with!), and one prize to an Everyday Chef Challenger. That could be you!

Oh... and it's a REAL trip to Napa; a two-day bootcamp at the Culinary Institute of America. A real trip... not a virtual one. You'll have to leave your house and figure out what to wear for this event!

So start thinking about the first of two challenges, using mushrooms and any variety of Pacific Foods broth you'd like. Your recipe(s) can be submitted any time between now and the day of the first vote count... September 15.

Check out the Everyday Chef Challenge... B.Y.O.R. or just V.O.T.E. Or, better yet, do both!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blackened Halibut with a Sauté of Sweet Orange Tomatoes, Marinated Artichoke Hearts, Kalamata Olives & Arugula... Elegant and Easy!

This particular recipe was inspired by a trip we took to Oregon's Willamette Valley wine country on a beautiful September day, more than a year ago. It was one of those ridiculously crystal clear, brilliantly blue-skied days that make our Northwest landscape sparkle in a way that you need to see to believe; the kind of day that begs to be captured on canvas, and bookmarked in your heart.

Though our lush, year-round emerald green hillsides might easily hint at our healthy rainfall, you'd be hard-pressed to think that anyone ever suffered from what I call "drizzle deliria" when one of these spectacular days emerge. We can have weeks of endless downpour, and fizzled spirits, but just let those blue skies shine through... for even a minute... and all is instantly forgotten (and forgiven). Rain? What rain?

Like that September dish enjoyed among the bright and verdant vineyards a year ago, we capped this year's sun-kissed Labor Day weekend with a similar meal -- this one squeezing just a bit more from the fleeting edge of summer...

Here, the freshness of sweet miniature orange tomatoes (in markets right now!) are combined with peppery arugula, marinated artichoke hearts, and fruity kalamata olives to make a savory sauté that's then topped with a flavorful blackened halibut. Beautiful, elegant... and SO quick and easy to make!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Chicken and Summer Veggies Tostada

I'm not sure that this photo allows you to truly appreciate the delicious nature of these simple tostadas, filled with all this summer goodness...

Tostadas are, by their very nature, simple creatures -- hardly necessitating a recipe. But I came across this one in my files and simply thought what a great way to use up some summer veggies. That's one of the wonderful perks of hoarding files and files of recipes. Eventually, select ones will resurface to inspire common sense... simplicity... humble fixings that just deliver. No big fanfare. Just plain good stuff!

And these tostadas are humble little fixings. They don't scream notice me, notice me in that let-me-be-the-center-of-attention sort of way, like a beautiful rack of lamb might. These tostadas are modest. Like most humble beings, their simplicity and ease mask their greatness. They don't flaunt all they have to offer. Instead, they nestle this goodness beneath a gooey blanket of melted cheese for you to discover on your own -- beautiful summer veggies (like fresh corn, tomatoes, and zucchini), succulent chunks of perfectly seasoned chicken, and a little kick of salsa for added personality.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Chocolate-Chip Orange Chiffon Cake with Orange Zest Glaze and Almond Chocolate-Chip Crunch Topping

I wish I could bottle that giddy, anticipatory feeling that birthdays can ignite with the simple lighting of a candle; that youthful exuberance of a child -- unfettered by the ticking of time and simply eager for the promise of festivities and the carefree unwrapping of what lies ahead.

While I'm yet to achieve this wish, I think we attempt to promote the celebratory nature of birthdays with what I call countdown wishes... "happy
one week before your birthday," happy three days before your birthday," and so on. The key is not to establish a pattern, but to simply extend a random wish or two before the big day. I'm not sure when we started this tradition but I suppose it was prompted years ago when our girls were young and began asking when their birthdays were due to roll around. Once they got old enough to know and no longer asked, we initiated this countdown to capture and hold a bit of that simple joy.

Now I can totally relate to how the excitement for a birthday can ebb as one becomes more mindful of the clock. However, I DO think it is important to embrace these days -- whether wholeheartedly or with reluctance. The simple fact is that time will continue to tick, so we might as well take advantage of those times when we can fill it with some balloons, a few silly cards, a couple of thoughtful gestures (maybe even some that are wrapped!)... a countdown, if you'd like... and, definitely, cake!