Saturday, December 10, 2011

Spanish Chicken

The Columbus Dispatch is arguably one of the worst papers in the world: poorly written with a blatant political slant, it makes most weekly small-town papers look like The New York Times. The exception--at least 16 years ago, when we lived in Ohio--was the food section. Over the course of our five years there, I must have clipped two dozen recipes from the "Dog Patch." I've lost a lot of them over the years, but a few have become family standards.

This is one of the latter, written by Sue Dawson. The original recipe called for whole chicken cut up, but I like it better this way, as it shortens the browning period and is less messy. The combination of sweet peppers, salty ham, moist chicken and slight heat is what makes this dish so memorable.

Spanish Chicken (Pollo en Chilindron)

1-1.5 lbs boneless chicken breast, cut into one-inch pieces
1 thick slice of ham (1/4 lb or more) diced
2 TB olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 large sweet red pepper, chopped
1 can diced tomatoes, half-drained
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/2-1 teaspoon salt
3-5 good cranks on the pepper grinder

  1. Heat half the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Brown chicken lightly. Be careful not to overcook. You should still see some pink at this point.
  2. Remove chicken and set aside. Add garlic, onions, sweet pepper, hot pepper, and ham to the skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are beginning to soften. Again, do not overcook.
  3. Return chicken to the pan. Mix, adding salt and pepper. Add tomatoes.
  4. Cook on medium to medium low heat for 20-25 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and the liquid starts to evaporate. Remove from heat and serve immediately.
Serve immediately with rice or potatoes.

Family Ratings

Will, who likes chicken: 9
Lucy, who likes ham: 10
Jamie, who likes (how weird is this for a five-year-old?) red peppers: 10
Ellen and Paul (who like things that taste good): 10

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pasta Carbonara

There's a T-shirt that says: "You had me at bacon." I'm pretty sure they were thinking of this recipe. It comes from Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet, and I've made it so often that when I pick that book up and set it down on the table, it automatically falls to that page.

Pasta Carbonara:
1/4 lb bacon
1 stick (1/4 lb) butter
1 cup milk
2 Tablespoons regular vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 lb short pasta
2 eggs, whipped
1/3 cup of fresh-grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Cook the pasta according to instructions. Drain when slightly al dente.
  2. Place three sheets of paper towel on a microwave safe plate. Place the bacon on top, then cover with three more sheets of paper towel. Microwave for 4-6 minutes, depending on the power of your microwave.
  3. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium-sized pan over medium-high heat.
  4. Pour the milk into a microwave-safe cup or measuring cup. Remove bacon when done, place milk inside, and cook for two minutes.
  5. Crumble the bacon.
  6. Once the milk is done, add it and the bacon to the melted butter. Switch heat to medium.
  7. Add vinegar to mix. Stir lightly, then lower heat to medium low. Cook for eight minutes until more or less smooth. (If the mixture curdles and divides when you add the vinegar, start over. Trust me.)
  8. Drain pasta and add to a large bowl.
  9. Mix eggs in a small bowl. Make sure cheese is grated.
  10. Once the sauce is ready, pour the eggs over the pasta, followed quickly by the bacon/butter mixture. This, in effect, cooks the eggs.
  11. Add cheese, toss. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Family Ratings:

Will who hates to admit that it actually tastes good: 8
Lucy. Are you kidding? It has bacon, right?: 10
Jamie. Are you kidding? It has bacon, right?: 10
Ellen, who's not actually that crazy about bacon: 7
Paul, who's not getting any skinnier: 10

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Chickpea Pasta

On the face of it, I know, this doesn't look like much. The trick is the combination of celery, chickpeas, and parsley: the three together give this a full, hearty flavor that's very satisfying.

A few notes:
  • Use Bush's chickpeas/garbanzo beans. They just taste better.
  • Once the dish is served up, adults should feel free to add a pinch more of the pepper flakes.
This recipe is adapted from David Young's wonderful Seasoning: A Poet's Year.

Chickpea Pasta

1 lb bow-tie pasta (or really, any short pasta)
2 cloves garlic
1 stalk of celery
1 carrot
1 small onion
2 TB olive oil
1 can chickpeas
2 14 oz cans chopped tomatoes
2 TB chopped parsley
Small pinch hot pepper flakes
salt to taste (at least 1/2 teaspoon)
pepper to taste (at least two cranks of the pepper grinder)

  1. Cook pasta per instructions, draining while it's slightly al dente.
  2. As pasta cooks, chop onion, garlic, celery, and carrot into very small pieces.
  3. Saute onion, garlic, celery, and carrot in the oil for five minutes, using medium heat.
  4. Drain tomatoes and add to vegetables. Simmer on low to medium heat for ten minutes or so until much--but not all--of the liquid disappears.
  5. Add chickpeas, parsley, and pepper flakes. Cook for a minute or two.
  6. Add salt and pepper, stir.
  7. Drain pasta, add to sauce, stirring. Cook for another minute or two.
  8. Remove and serve.
Family Ratings:

Will who likes most pastas: 7.5
Lucy who loves chickpeas but doesn't like cooked tomatoes: 7.5
Jamie, who used to be called "garbanzo bean" when he was still in Ellen's belly and isn't quite sure what to make of all our jokes about eating him: 8
Paul and Ellen, who add extra peppers: 10

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The First Annual Food That Doesn't Suck Holiday Cookbook Blitz

Here's the idea: you like to cook. Your spouse/mom/boyfriend/kid wants to give you a cookbook for Christmas, but has nooo idea what's good and what's not.

So here's what we do: below, in the comments section, post a short--say, 20-50 word--review of your favorite cookbook. Be sure to include the title, the author, and maybe the publisher. Tell us why you like it, naming a couple representative recipes. See my sample, below.

Then wait a few days, come back, and see what everyone else has posted. Pick and choose, then pass the relevant details along to the shopper in your family, reminding them that cookbooks are one of those gifts that benefits them just as much as it does you!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Weekend Roast Beef and Potatoes

This dish is really really easy, but because of the cooking time, it's probably best for weekends. I grew up eating this roast beef. I suppose some readers of Bon Appetite will be offended by my use of dried french onion soup as a spice, but given the choice between hanging out with those folks and hanging out with the woman who birthed me, raised me, and continues to give me emotional support, I'll go with my mom a good 58% of the time.

I'm not really sure what to call the cut of meat you want to get for this dish: in Wisconsin, where I grew up, you just went to the meat counter and asked for a "beef roast." Down in Virginia, where I am now, there's top shoulder roasts and round roasts and beef butts and bottom round shoulder beef butts. Basically what you want is a nice hunk of meat (3-4 lbs.) that's got some fairly serious marbling to it. Too lean a hunk or too skinny of a piece will lead to a dried out roast.

Speaking of dry, one key here is to make sure the tinfoil wrapped around the roast is air-tight. Crimp and double-crimp all of the seams, and if you poke a hole in the foil by mistake, either start over or double wrap with another sheet. Seriously: miss this step and your roast will have the taste and texture of dried dog food.

Just in case, I've included a recipe for "gravy" here that uses the juice from the roast. I know it's not true gravy, and that if I'd read more cook books and cooking magazines I could put together a really fantastic concoction that would make even Julia Childs happy. But you know what? I drive 100 miles a day to and from work, have three kids ten and under, and just don't have the time or patience. And besides, this au jus stuff that I make tastes pretty good . . .

Finally, feel free to just make the roast and skip the potatoes, or just make the roast and the potatoes and skip the gravy. Whatever works for you.

And my apologies to the vegetarians in the crowd: I've yet to find a suitable soy-based substitute for a 3 lb. lump of meat. Coming soon though: a chick-pea pasta that'll knock your socks of.

The Roast Beef

1 3-4 lb beef roast with good marbling
1 envelope dried onion soup (I usually go with Lipton)
A really big sheet of tin foil, large enough to wrap around and tent over the roast

  1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees
  2. Rinse the roast and pat dry with paper towels
  3. In a baking pan with lay out the sheet of tinfoil
  4. Pour half the envelope of dried onion soup onto the foil
  5. Situate the roast onto the foil
  6. Pour the rest of the soup mix on top of the roast
  7. Very very very carefully seal the roast in the tin foil. Be sure all seams are air-tight, and that the foil tents over the top of the roast. If possible, also leave a little space on the sides of the roast as well.
  8. Cook for 2.5 hours.
  9. Remove from oven. Carefully open the foil from the top, avoiding the steam and preserving the juices if you wish to make the "gravy" (below).
  10. Cut and serve.

The Roasted Potatoes

1-1.5 lbs small potatoes (new or red are fine)
Salt to taste
Olive oil or Olive-Oil Cooking Spray (e.g., Pam)

  1. Clean the potatoes and cut in half (or quarters, if they're large)
  2. Throw into a pot of water.
  3. Heat to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes.
  4. Test with a fork. If your fork can go in easily, they're ready for the next step. If not, let them go for another 5 minutes and test again.
  5. Drain the water from the potatoes. Spray cookie sheet with olive oil.
  6. Arrange potatoes, cut face down, on sheet.
  7. Spray very lightly with olive oil. Or don't, if you don't feel like it.
  8. Sprinkle with salt.
  9. Roast for 45 minutes, turning once if you think of it.
  10. Remove and serve, slathered in butter.
The "Gravy"

The juice from roast beef from above.
2-3 Tablespoons of flour
A large pinch of dried rosemary, crumbled between your fingers
Fresh-ground pepper to taste

  1. Pour the beef/onion juice from the tin-foil into a frying pan
  2. Spoon maybe half a cup of juice into a small bowl and mix with the flour until pasty and smooth.
  3. Pour the mix back into the frying pan and whisk. If it's still a bit thin, repeat step 2 with another 1-2 tablespoons of flower.
  4. Turn heat to medium-high.
  5. Crumble the rosemary into the sauce.
  6. Add pepper.
  7. Heat until it begins to thicken.
  8. Serve with potatoes and roast.
Family Ratings

Lucy, who loves potatoes, loves roast beef, and loooooves onions: 10
Will, who often leaves the table to get a toothpick: 8
Jamie, who also loves potatoes, but only if you let him have as much butter as he wants: 10
Ellen, who grew up eating roast beef and roasted potatoes in England and isn't a fan of beef: 6
Paul, who grew up eating this stuff: 10

Penne Vodka

Yes, this is the same dish you can get at your favorite Italian restaurant. And yes, it's full of butter and cream and cheese and alcohol, so you want to go easy and not stuff your face. But the great thing about it? Since it's basically a fancy mac and cheese, your kids will love it.

This pairs nicely with the Sweet Tart salad (below), especially if you use white balsamic vinegar for the salad dressing. And be sure to buy a loaf of crusty bread to sop up the leftover sauce--because, you know, this dish doesn't have enough carbs as it is . . .

Penne Vodka

1 lb penne or a similar pasta (the kids may prefer bow ties or rigatoni)
1 stick of butter (Yes: butter. Don't mess this up with margarine)
3/4 cup vodka
1/2-3/4 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup canned tomatoes, drained
3/4 cup grated Parmesan
1 teaspoon salt

  1. Cook the pasta according to directions. I like to leave it a little al dente. Whatever you do, don't overcook.
  2. Melt the butter in a dutch oven or other large pan.
  3. Add the vodka and the pepper flakes. Simmer for three minutes, or until just before your nose hairs don't curl when you put your head over the pot for a wiff. (You think I'm kidding, but I'm not . . . )
  4. Add the tomatoes and cream and simmer for five or so minutes.  Stir frequently to keep the items from separating too much.  
  5. Add the salt.
  6. Drain the pasta really well, and add it to the pan.
  7. Lower the heat and add the Parmesan. Mix.
  8. Turn off the heat and serve.
Family Ratings:

Will, who's loathe to give his father any positive reinforcement: 8
Lucy (oh my god, are you kidding?): 10
Jamie: 10
Ellen who's still skinny after all these years: 8
Paul, who's not: 10

Sweet Tart Salad

This is an easy salad that has bits and pieces to keep everyone happy. My basic philosophy here--as with a lot of my dishes--is that its okay for a kid to eat around the edges of a dish, because even if they're just eating, say, the apples in this dish, they'll be picking up other flavors, whether they want them or not. And over time, their tastes will expand and they won't even notice the "weird" things in a dish.

Okay, so it's just a theory.

A couple variations on this:
  • If you can't find good pears, use sweeter apples alongside the Grannie Smiths.
  • If the balsamic vinegar taste here is too strong for your kids, try white balsamic vinegar.
  • If the kids really fuss about the blue cheese, just put it in a separate bowl on the side for the adults to sprinkle.
  • And no, the extra halves of the apple and the pear don't go to waste. You eat them, dummy.
  • If you have leftover dressing, it'll keep for at least a week and maybe longer.
Sweet Tart Salad

One bag of green lettuce (red leaf, baby romaine, that sort of thing)
1/2 Grannie Smith apple, chopped
1/2 Asian pear, chopped
1/3 cup blue cheese
3 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
3 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 Tablespoon honey
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Mix the vinegar, olive oil, and honey. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  2. Put the lettuce in a large bowl.
  3. Top the lettuce with the apples, the pear, and the cheese.
  4. Pour 1/2 of the dressing on the salad and toss. Add more dressing to taste.
Family Ratings on a scale of 1-10:

Lucy, who will eat everything but the blue cheese: 8
Jamie, who will eat anything we put in his mouth: 8
Will, who will only eat the apples and pears: 3
Paul, Ellen, and every other adult who's eaten this salad: 100

Friday, November 4, 2011

Creamy Tomato and Ravioli Soup

Back when I was in college, I was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship. Nominated, at least, by a faculty member. The next step was to receive an endorsement from the college itself, and I never made it past that stage. The school could only send along the names of two students, and apparently the committee decided they didn't want some long-haired, earring-wearing dude whose main ambition in life was to be lead singer of Don't Kick the Baby to represent the college.

Of the two chosen, one was a pre-med major who started the first ever Tae Kwon Do club in northeast Iowa, something the committee, I guess, thought was more significant than writing songs about losing your parrot and cheating on your girlfriend in Budapest. He went on to be a heart surgeon at--*YAWN!*--the Mayo clinic. The year I was in Hong Kong on a Fulbright, the college alumni magazine ran a little--really little--article about my grant. Opposite it, they ran a full page--as in, one WHOLE page--article featuring old what's-his-face karate guy, talking about how he promised some little girl he was about to cut open that she wouldn't die and that he would (I'm not making this up) "dance with her at her senior prom." And then he did. Cut her open, I mean, and saved her life, and danced with her her senior year. Which is pretty cool, I must admit, but even so: I was in Hong Kong, eating dim sum and buying custom-made suits. Surely that's almost as important as saving some kid's life?

Oh well.

Anyhow, the other person chosen to represent my school was this smart, tough, funny, field-hockey playing braniac name Julie. And while I was tempted to be annoyed with Julie for taking MY spot at the regional Rhodes interviews, I'd had her in a class or two and I think she was an RA with me, and I kind of had to admit tha she was actually fairly brilliant and impressive in a midwestern kind of way. Anyhow, Julie went on to become a college professor just like me, fighting the good fight for crap pay and minimal perks. You got to respect that. And then she gave me this recipe. So needless to say, all is forgiven.

This soup is pretty self-explanatory. Like the veggie chili from a few weeks back, it has a few cans, but boy does it have a lot of flavor. And the kids really gobbled it down.

Two minor points before you start:
1) If you're a vegetarian, I'm guessing the chicken broth could be replaced with veggie broth.
2) If this turns out to be too much, the next time you cook it go all the way through the recipe and stop JUST BEFORE adding the ravioli. At that point, remove half the broth from the pot and put it in the refrigerator along with half of the UNCOOKED ravioli. Then save it for another day.

Creamy Tomato and Ravioli Soup

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, diced
2 Tablespoons olive oil
2 cans diced fire roasted tomatoes, drained
2 cans condensed tomato soup
2 cans of milk (use the tomato cans. um, duh.)
14.5 oz. can chicken broth (or veggie broth)
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
6 fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
1 9 oz. package cheese tortellini or cheese ravioli

  1. In a large saucepan or dutch oven, saute the onions and garlic for three minutes at medium-high heat
  2. Add the roasted tomatoes, the soup, the milk, the chicken broth, the tomato paste, the parmesan, and the basil
  3. Cook, stirring occasionally, until warmed through
  4. Add the tortellini or the ravioli, and cook for approximately nine minutes
  5. Remove from heat and serve

Family Ratings:

Will, who likes to be clever: 8.9999 repeating
Lucy, who will eat a chicken tail but doesn't like cooked tomatoes: 8
Jamie, who had trouble eating the big raviolis: 7

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ma Po Tofu

I should hate this dish: it has tofu, brown rice, and ground pork, three things I'm not really so crazy about. But dang it tastes good! And as it turns out, the brown rice is essential to the flavor of the dish. I've added extra here to give really fussy kids something to stuff themselves with if they won't touch the tofu . . .

Two tricks make this work: first, you have to press the tofu to remove a lot of the moisture. Second, you have to be patient while the tofu fries, letting it get a nice golden-brown color. If you're pork is too lean, you may want to actually stir-fry the tofu separately in a little oil ahead of time, then go back to step #7.

And actually, here's a third trick: if the word "tofu" scares your kid, just lie and say it's chicken. Or pork. Or Tuna. Whatever works.

This recipe feeds five pretty comfortably.

Ma Po Tofu
2 x 14.5 oz. packages of firm or extra-firm tofu
1/2 lb ground pork
2 Tablespoons fresh ginger, peeled and chopped (or grated)
5-6 garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup chicken broth
2 Tablespoons cornstarch
4 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons oyster sauce
4 cups cooked long-grain brown rice
1/2-1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce
1/2 cup chopped green onions, to garnish

  1. Start your rice. Brown rice can take a little longer to cook.
  2. Line two plates with paper towels. Slice each cake of tofu width-wise into six smaller cakes. Place half the cakes on one plate, the rest on the other plate. Cover the tofu with another layer of paper towel, then place a heavy plate on top. Allow to sit for half an hour or so.
  3. Chop up the garlic and the ginger. Combine and set aside.
  4. Chop up the onions. Set on the table for garnish.
  5. Combine the broth, cornstarch, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and chili sauce. Stir well. Set aside.
  6. Cut each of your 12 tofu cakes into 8 roughly one-inch square pieces. You should be able to do this while they're still sitting on the plates.
  7. When you know the rice is close to being done, heat up your wok or a non-stick frying pan. Add the pork and crumble for two minutes. It may still be pink. Don't worry.
  8. Add the ginger and garlic. Stir-fry for 30 seconds or so, until it becomes fragrant.
  9. Add the tofu. Cook for six minutes or so, allowing it to become firm and golden brown. If the pork or the tofu start to stick, use your spatula to scrape under the meat. That way you won't break apart your nice tofu squares.
  10. Once the tofu is lightly golden, add your broth mixture and mix lightly. Bring to a boil and cook for two minutes or until the sauce thickens. Remove from heat.
  11. Serve the tofu over rice. Top with green onions.
Family ratings on a scale of 1-10:

Lucy, who will eat the onions raw: 10
Will, who likes it but deducts points for "spiciness" purely out of principle: 7
Jamie, who honestly believes he's eating chicken: 9

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mediterranean Pasta with Feta and Other Stuff That Kids Are Supposed to Hate

This recipe doesn't look like much on paper: some noodles, some red peppers, some Italian sausage (made from chicken, no less). But put it all together and it tastes great. The key, I think, is that the feta melts when mixed with the cooking liquid from the pasta.

This is also a good dish for kids who pick bits and pieces from their plates: those who like sausage can eat the sausage, those who like noodles can eat the noodles, and so on. I know this is supposed to a bad approach to raising kids--"Eat everything on your plate, damn it!"--but I actually find that it works: they may think they're getting just what they like, but because everything blends, they're getting more flavors than they know. Will used to really resist this dish, but now he eats pretty much everything but the red peppers (which, I'll admit, I sometimes pick out myself . . . ).

Two things to keep in mind: first, start the pasta right away, even before you chop the vegetables, as the dish itself goes pretty quickly. Second, be sure to reserve a half-cup of liquid as you drain the pasta. I usually stick my measuring cup in the colander ahead of time just so I don't forget. That said, if you do slip up, just use any old half-cup of semi-dirty water. (Just kidding--but yes, regular water will work.)

This recipe originally came from an old issue of Cooking Light--or as my friend Jacqui calls it: Cooking "Light." It's become one of our family favorites, the sort of dish that's so easy and tasty, you have to force yourself to not cook it every week.

Mediterranean Pasta with Feta and Sausage

12 ounces uncooked pasta (rigatoni, ziti, bow ties, that kind of thing)
1 TB olive oil
1 red bell pepper, cut into slices which are then cut in half
1/2 ts salt, divided
8 ounces chicken or turkey Italian sausage, skin removed
1 ts dried oregano
1 garlic clove, crushed and minced
3/4 cup crumbled feta
8 kalamata olives, sliced
Ground pepper to taste

  1. Cook the pasta. Reserve 1/2 cup of cooking liquid when you drain.
  2. Heat the oil in a good sized pan (eventually, everything, including the pasta, will end up in this pot--so make sure it's big enough; I sometimes use a dutch oven.)
  3. Saute the bell pepper and 1/4 teaspoon of salt for two minutes.
  4. Slice the skin off the sausages; add them, the oregano, and the garlic to the pan. Cook for 3-4 minutes, crumbling the sausage.
  5. Add the pasta, the reserved liquid, 1/4 ts of salt, the cheese, the olives, and a dash or two of black pepper and cook for another two minutes, stirring frequently.
  6. Just as the feta begins to melt, remove from heat and serve.
Family ratings, on a scale of 1-10:
Ellen: 10
Will, who hates food when it's all mixed together: 7
Lucy, who looooooooves sausage: 10
Jamie, who usually insists on being fed by an adult: 10 (he actually feeds this to himself, and always asks for seconds).
Paul, who thinks that feta is an essential ingredient in every household: 10

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Stuffed Pumpkin

This recipe looks complicated, but it's not: essentially, it involves gutting a pumpkin just like you would for a jack-o-lantern, making an easy bread pudding, and putting the bread pudding into the pumpkin. Even so, this is a good show-off recipe, the kind of thing that makes your friends think you're a culinary wizard. Even more important though, since it basically involves bread, cheese, and bacon, most kids will eat it.

Because it takes 90 minutes to cook, this is definitely a weekend recipe. I've adapted it from Dorie Greespan's Around My French Table, and though I haven't tried it yet with an acorn squash, I will once the grocery stores and road-side stands stop carrying pumpkins.

One final note: I generally DOUBLE this recipe for a family of two adults and three kids. That usually leaves some leftovers for lunch the next day.

Stuffed Pumpkin

1 pumpkin, 2.5-3.5 lbs
1/4 lb stale break, cut into 1/2 inch chunks
1/4 Gruyere, cut into 1/2 squares
1-2 cloves garlic, minced (maybe less: the flavor can be very strong)
1/4 lb bacon, cooked and chopped
1/4 minced green onions
1 TB minced fresh thyme
1/2 cup (or slightly more) heavy cream
1.5 ts ground nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cut open and gut and seed the pumpkin, just as you would for a jack-o-lantern. Be sure to keep the lid.
  3. Rub the inside of the pumpkin with a combination of salt and pepper. Set aside.
  4. Slice and cube the bread, and mix together in a large bowl with the gruyere, garlic, bacon, onions, and thyme. Add more salt and pepper, to taste. Mix well.
  5. Put the stuffing in the pumpkin. If it doesn't all fit, don't worry.
  6. Mix together the cream and the nutmeg. Pour into the pumpkin. Place the cap back on the pumpkin.
  7. Put the pumpkin on a cookie sheet. Carefully slide it into the oven.
  8. Bake for 90 minutes. Test with the tip of a knife. If it slides in easily, remove the pumpkin from the oven. If not, cook for ten more minutes, and then remove.
  9. I usually use a thin spatula to place the pumpkin on a serving dish. Then I remove the lid, slice the pumpkin in half, then slice each half in thirds to serve. Everything but the skin and stem can be eaten.
Family ratings on a scale of 1-10:
Lucy who will eat anything: 10
Will who tends to talk a lot when served a dish he doesn't like: 8
Jamie: 8
Ellen and Paul: 10

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chicken Fajitas

Years ago when I first started cooking, my mother cleaned out her cupboards and gave me all of the cookbooks she never used. One of them was a church book from western Pennsylvania, one of those collections where everyone throws in their favorite recipes. Hidden amongst the tater-tot salads and the slow cooker pot roasts was a recipe for chicken fajitas. I love that: 1963, steel country PA, and someone's cooking chicken friggin' fajitas. And guess what? They're awesome.

A few tips:
  • I use kitchen scissors to cut up the chicken. Buy yourself a good pair: Chicago Cutlery, or Wusthof, one of those brands. My friend Eileen gave me a set of these 20 years ago when I got married, and they're still going strong. So's the marriage, which may be unrelated. But then again, maybe not . . .
  • Grate your own cheese. That pre-grated stuff from the grocery store will ruin any dish, especially if the cheese is uncooked, as it is here.
  • I use six- or eight-inch tortillas, and I warm them up in the microwave wrapped in paper towel, just to keep life easy.
  • Cook the onions separately. That way you can use tons of hot peppers and not have to worry about taking the kids to the emergency room.
  • Let the kids make their own fajitas. A little control goes a long way.


1/4 cup lime juice (the store bought stuff will do just fine)
2 Tb soy sauce
2 Tb Worcheshire sauce
1.5 teaspoons ground cumin
2 TB olive oil

1-1.5 lbs. boneless skinless chicken breast
10 Tortillas
1.5 cups grated cheddar cheese
2 small tomatoes, diced
2 cups chopped lettuce
1 onion, sliced
Sour Cream

  1. Mix together the marinade.
  2. Cut the chicken up into bite-sized pieces and toss them in the marinade. Let sit.
  3. Chop the tomatoes and the lettuce, grate the cheese and slice (don't chop!) the onions. Wrap the tortillas in paper towel, but don't put them in the microwave, yet. By the time you're done with all of this, the chicken should have marinated long enough.
  4. In a small saute pan, heat a tablespoon of olive oil, and toss in the onions, plus 1-2 tablespoons of dried red pepper flakes. Saute as you're cooking the chicken (below).
  5. Heat up a wok or a large frying pan. (Because there's oil in the marinade, I don't use any here, but you might have to if the chicken seems to stick.)
  6. Using a slotted spoon, put the chicken in the pan and cook on high or medium-high.
  7. Pour most of the run-off juices from the chicken pan into the onion pan so that they can soak up the flavor. If there isn't any juice, use some of the left-over marinade.
  8. Add more hot pepper flakes to the onions.
  9. Put your tortillas in the microwave; cook for 1-1.5 minutes.
  10. Stir-fry the chicken for five or so minutes, until it's done, but not over-done. (Don't be afraid to pour more juices into the onions. You're not making a stew here, and the onions will only get tastier and tastier. )
  11. Add more hot pepper flakes to the onions. Give them another good stir, then turn off the heat.
  12. Set everything (including the sour cream) up on the table in separate dishes and let everyone make their own, using their own proportions and omitting whatever they choose.
Family Ratings, on a scale of 1-10:

Will, who generally hates everything: 10
Lucy, who's loathe to like her brother's favorite food: 7
Jamie, who really digs sour cream: 10
Paul, who usually adds still more red pepper flakes to the onions: 10

Monday, October 17, 2011

Indian Keema

In addition to being a brilliant economist who teaches game theory (and other economic-y and not-so-economic-y things) at the Virginia Military Institute, my friend Atin is one of the best cooks I’ve ever met. He’s the kind of guy who can improvise and come up with something so amazing you can’t believe he didn’t steal it from Julia Childs (I’m thinking, in particular, of a roast beef spiked with fennel he served us once at a post-Christmas dinner). The funny thing about it is that Atin spent most of his childhood traveling the Indian on a merchant marine ship with his father and a wayward uncle—hardly, one would think the kind of setting that makes for great culinary skills.
What recipes Atin does know—including this one—were taught to him by his west Bengali grandmother during intermittent shore leaves. In other words, this is real Indian cooking. Ellen, my wife who’d like to be a vegetarian and who really doesn’t like the idea of eating baby sheep, looooooooves this dish.
A few notes, just to make life easier:
Use basmati rice. This is an Indian dish, for god’s sake.
If you don’t have one already, buy a little electric rice steamer. They’re easy to use, telling you exactly how much water to add, and they have an automatic “heat” mode that kicks in when the rice is done, so you don’t have to worry about burning the stuff.
I’ve suggested preparing 1.5 to 2 cups of rice. That way, if one of the little beaners doesn’t like the keema, they can fill up on starches.
Similarly, if you have kids who don’t like veggies, add another half pound of ground lamb. That way they can pick around the carrots and beans and still get plenty of protein.
Frozen vegetable work fine for this; if you want, though, feel free to use fresh. Just make sure to chop them up small enough.

Atin’s Lamb and Vegetable Keema
Vegetable oil.
1-2 cups uncooked basmati rice. Seriously. Basmati. Nothing else.
1-1.5 lbs ground lamb (beef might work, too)
1 chopped and seeded green pepper (Atin recommends two, but what does he know?)
2 finely chopped red onions
1 15oz. can of tomatoes (drained)
1 bag mixed frozen vegetables (corn, carrots, peas, beans—avoid broccoli, as it’ll end up overcooked)
2 Tablespoons finely chopped ginger
1 TB finely chopped garlic
1 teaspoon turmeric
.5 teaspoons onion seed (If you can't find this, substitute .25 ts onion powder)
.25 teaspoons anise seed
1 TB cumin seeds
1 cinnamon stick, crushed with the ball of your hand or a small hammer
2 cloves
A pinch of cardamom seeds
.5 teaspoons cayenne or paprika
Salt and pepper and sugar to taste
A sprig of cilantro
1. Start your rice cooking.
2. Mash the ginger and garlic together to make a paste. Use a mortar and pestle if you have one; if not, just smash it with a fork (or the small hammer, if you’re feeling frustrated). Set aside.
3. Mix together the rest of the spices, from turmeric down to the cayenne/paprika, in a spice grinder.  Grind until fine, and then set aside.
4. Heat vegetable oil in a wok or large pan. Caramelize the onions on high or medium high.
5. Add the garlic/ginger paste and fry until, in Atin’s words, you get that nice “done” smell.
6. Add the meat and the ground spices. Break up the meat and stir occasionally. Cook until the oil comes out of the meat and starts to glisten. This step is KEY.
7. Add the tomatoes, the green pepper, and the frozen vegetables.
8. Add sugar and salt to taste. Simmer until the vegetables are—again in Atin’s words—“squishy” and begin to disappear into the meat.
9. Serve over rice (Basmati, have I mentioned that?) and garnish with a little chopped cilantro.

Family ratings on a scale of 1-10:
Lucy, who has been known to eat pigeon heads: 10
Will, who’s picky but doesn’t want to hurt my feelings: 7
Ellen, who thought she’d be a vegetarian by now: 106
Jamie, who’s not yet five: toboggan

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Veggie Chili and Irish Oatmeal Bread

Okay, so this is a nice one-two punch: even if the kids think the chili’s too spicy (wimps), they can stuff themselves on the oatmeal bread. What I usually do is mix the oatmeal bread and get it in the oven first. Once it’s done, then I start on the chili. The prep takes roughly 30 minutes, so the chili and the bread end up getting done about the same time. If the rice is still a little crunchy in the chili, turn up the heat and let it go a bit longer.

The chili is great reheated: it just gets thicker and thicker and tastier and tastier. And the bread is nice smothered in butter for a bed-time snack, toasted for breakfast, or whatever.

(PS--Yes, I know the chili has a lot of canned goods. You'll get over it. We've been eating this for almost 20 years, and it's still one of our favorites. The corn and the rice are what make it.)

Irish Oatmeal Bread

3 cups flour

1.25 cups quick-cooking rolled oats, uncooked

1.5 teaspoons salt

1.5 Tablespoons baking powder

1 egg

1/4 cup honey

1.5 cups milk

1 T butter

Mix milk, egg and honey together in a big bowl. Then add everything else but the butter, and mix it, too. Bake in a greased bread pan at 350 degrees for 1 hour. Melt the butter over the top. Slice, slather with more butter, and eat with the chili.

Chunky Vegetarian Chili

1 medium green pepper, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 can (14.5 ounces each) Mexican-style tomatoes

1 can black-eyed peas

1 can (11 oz) sweet corn

2.5 cups water

1 cup uncooked rice

2 Tablespoons chili powder

1.5 teaspoons ground cumin

Sour cream and grated cheese to top.

Saute the pepper, the onion, and the garlic in a little oil over medium-high heat for about five minutes in a big pan or Dutch oven. Add everything else, except the sour cream and cheese. Stir it up and bring it to a boil.

Reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve hot, and top with sour cream and cheese.