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.