Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cleaning out the pantry...Mexican Lasagna

My husband loves a deal.  In fact, he cannot help himself or pass up a good deal.  For this reason, we usually end up with lots of random buy one get one free cans of tomatoes, chickpeas, black beans, Rotel, and the like.  A couple of weeks ago we were playing the dinner game.  You know the game...

"What do you feel like for dinner?"
"Eh, I don't know, what do you feel like?"
and repeat.

We decided that Mexican food sounded good and I suggested enchiladas.  J started feeling creative and thought of a great way to get rid of lots of the extra random cans that we had in the pantry...Mexican Lasagna!  This is something that we basically whipped up on a whim and it turned out really delicious!  You can really mix it up with anything that you have on hand.  We just used what we had in the house and it turned out great.

Mexican Lasagna
(makes two 9x9 pans...six servings per pan.  This freezes extremely well and it's a great idea to make an extra to freeze.  On a busy work night you can pull it out of the freezer, bake it, and have insta-dinner.)

Here are the ingredients that we used, but again...this recipe is very open to interpretation!
A bunch of corn tortillas
Ground beef and ground pork (J likes to mix his meats) - seasoned to your liking.  You could use taco seasoning for this, but J likes to make his own.  I'm not sure what he put in it, but I do know there was cayenne pepper and cumin involved.
2 cans Rotel (We used one hot and one mild...beware, hot Rotel is HOT!!  We love spicy food so this wasn't an issue.)
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 can of chickpeas
1 can of black beans
1 package of frozen spinach
1/2 package of frozen corn
A wee bit of salsa.
Your favorite hot sauce!
For the top...a handful of cheese, a dollop of sour cream, and chopped avocado

1. We browned the beef until it was mostly cooked...
2. Then we made our enchilada sauce by combining the cream of chicken soup, 2 cans of rotel, and some salsa.  J seasoned this up a bit too, but with the hot Rotel in it, it didn't really need much else.  I'm sure some of our favorite hot sauce ended up in there (Don't be a Chicken Shit.  That's the name of the sauce, not a personal insult ;D).
3. Next we combined a couple of the other things for different layers.  We cooked off the frozen spinach and corn, mixed that together with a bit of salsa, and that was ready for a layer.  So easy.  We also combined the black beans and chickpeas with a bit more salsa and hot sauce for another layer.
4. Time to layer the lasagna!  Start out with a bit of sauce on the very bottom of the pan and spread evenly.  Next, break a couple of the corn tortillas in half and arrange them on top of the sauce.  The rest of the layering process is really up to you and what you're using and what you think would work best, but here is how we layered ours (from the bottom up)...
Sauce on bottom
Corn tortillas
More sauce
Ground beef/pork
Corn tortillas
More sauce
Black bean/chickpea mixture
Corn tortillas
More sauce
Spinach/corn/salsa mixture
Corn tortillas
More sauce...
 And then our pan was totally full!! 

5. We baked one in the oven for about 45 minutes, pulled it out and put a bit of cheese on top, and put it back in the oven to melt the cheese. 
6.  To serve we put a dollop of sour cream on top along with some chopped was seriously delicious! 

The leftovers were just as delicious the next day.  We cleaned out the pantry and satisfied our craving for Mexican food in the process...and it was really pretty healthy.  Hardly any cheese is involved, lots of beans and vegetables, and just a bit of meat at the bottom.  This could easily be made as a vegetarian dish as well, or with chicken...or really whatever you want.  It's a pretty loose recipe, but I look forward to making it again!  It was super easy and super yummy...does it get any better than that?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Meeting the new neighbors...and Snickerdoodles.

Like I said in some of my previous posts...J has been traveling quite a bit for work this month.  On the first of his work trips this month, I thought I would be productive and make myself a little to do list.  One of the most difficult and hated chores around our house is washing the couch cushions.  Like, removing the external couch cushion cover, washing it, and putting it back on.  It's just damn near impossible.  Anyway, after fighting at length with the couch cushions and getting them in the washer, I decided it was time to take the recycling out.  Wearing J's bathrobe.  Slightly sweaty from the couch cushion project.  At noon.

We hadn't been in the house very long just yet...maybe two weeks...and had not yet thought to hide a spare key.  The side door to our house locks automatically if it's set a certain way...and of course it was set to lock automatically while I was outside in J's bathrobe and some gold gladiator sandals.  Of COURSE.  So I look at the dogs, looking at me, through the door...go around back hoping that I left the back door unlocked (knowing this would not be the case).  Of course it was locked.  All of the doors were.  I was locked phone, no car keys, and J was on a plane to Las Vegas for work.  We hadn't met our next door neighbors quite yet, but I realized it was my only option!

I knocked on the door, still slightly sweaty, still wearing a bathrobe and gladiator sandals.  "Hi, I'm your new neighbor...I'm so sorry, but I've locked myself out and I was hoping to use your phone."  The older gentleman who answered the door was so sweet and ushered me inside.  He and his wife were making turkey and brie sandwiches after a long bike ride.  His wife came out and said "Oh, bless your heart!  What a way to meet the neighbors!"  I explained that my husband was on a plane and I needed to call a locksmith.  They got me a glass of mango tea and told me about their worldy travels...they love to vacation in Italy and all over the world.  They have been married for 47 years, since they were 17 and 19 years old.  After chatting with them for over an hour, the locksmith finally showed up.  My neighbor insisted on staying with me until I was safely inside the house.

A situation that is now humorous, and at the time so extremely embarrassing, could have been so much worse...but thanks to my wonderful neighbors it was truly not so bad.  I honestly could not think of a better place to wait for the locksmith and I was so incredibly grateful for their hospitality.

To show my gratitude, I decided I would bake them cookies the following weekend.  I wanted to do a new recipe and we had everything to make I went for it.  They were seriously amazing!  They were some of the best snickerdoodles I have ever had, and I have had plenty of snickerdoodles.  The recipe I used is below (from Smitten Kitchen).


Makes three dozen 3 to 4-inch cookies.

2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar, plus more if needed
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon, plus more if needed
2 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 400°, with one rack in top third and one rack in bottom third of oven.  Line baking sheets with silicone baking mats or parchment paper; set aside.

Sift together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt; set aside.  In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar.  Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.  Scrape down sides of bowl.  Add eggs, and beat to combine.  Add dry ingredients, and beat to combine.  I always chill my cookie dough for an hour or two before scooping it onto the trays.  If you leave it in the fridge for awhile it's easier to work with and the cookies stay puffier.

Once dough has chilled, in a small bowl, combine remaining 1/4 cup sugar and the ground cinnamon. Use a small ice-cream scoop to form balls of the dough, and roll in cinnamon sugar.  Place about two inches apart on the prepared baking sheets.  Bake until the cookies are set in center and begin to crack (they will not brown), about 10 minutes, rotating the baking sheets after five minutes.  Enjoy!

Since this recipe makes 3 dozen cookies, J and I ended up with 2 dozen.  I feel like anything less than a dozen cookies for a neighbor is not enough, but anything more is too much.  They stayed yummy in the fridge for over a week!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Buffalo by Candlelight ♥

As I said in my last post, last Sunday I experienced a profound craving for a yummy hunk of beef, potatoes, and green veggies.  Specifically, I wanted a Filet Mignon, broccolini, and a twice baked potato.   Even though we were full of Menchie's frozen yogurt one thing was clear to me...what I wanted for dinner.  We walked over to Whole Foods for some fresh eats.  J loves to peruse the herbs...he has a pretty serious herb garden in the backyard.  Once I got him inside and away from the herbs, we grabbed some gorgeous red dahlias, fresh ground almond butter, and then it was time for the real mission...STEAK.  We went up to the meat counter and they were *gasp!* OUT of Filet Mignon.  It was Labor Day weekend, so I guess my craving wasn't that original.  Despite this, I still wanted my delicious hunk of lean beef.  We saw they had buffalo tenderloin and decided to go with it.  I love buffalo; it's very lean and delicious.  The butcher cut us two fresh steaks, we grabbed a couple of potatoes and veggies, and came home.

We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping around Park Avenue a bit and then we had a couple of glasses of wine.  It started to get late, so J decided to start dinner.  He threw the potatoes in the oven and we started to watch a movie.  As soon as the potatoes were done, the power went out!  I had been excited about this meal all day and I was so disappointed that we couldn't eat it that night.  I told J I would get ready to go out to dinner, but he told me that I didn't have to!  Our new place has a gas stove, so he was able to just light the stove and cook by candlelight.  He cooked the buffalo tenderloin to a perfect medium for me, tossed the broccolini in the same pan, threw some parmesan cheese on top, and voila!  Dinner.  Our power didn't come back on until 11:00 that night.  It ended up being very romantic...we just lit candles everywhere, enjoyed our meal, and drank a beautiful bottle of Sangiovese from Tuscany.  We didn't even miss the power.  And I didn't even miss the Filet.  Next time, I have a feeling I will be craving buffalo instead.

Monday, September 13, 2010

For the love of Menchie's.

Last Sunday, J and I went on our monthly massage and Menchie's date.  This is pretty much the best date ever and something that we look forward to all month long!  Although our massages are always wonderful and that deserves some love and attention...this post is about MENCHIE'S, my favorite place on earth!  Okay, that's a lie, there are some other places that I enjoy more, but Menchie's is heaven for frozen yogurt lovers.  There are tons of fro-yo places out there now...Gurtzberry, Yogurtland, Mochi, etc...but none are quite as good as the mecca that is Menchie's.

Let me tell you just a little bit about this place if you haven't had the privilege of eating their delicious fro-yo.  Menchie's serves the kind of frozen yogurt that has active cultures in it, so it is actually good for you!  Well, that is, if you don't cover it in Cap'n Crunch and butterscotch, but I digress.  They rotate 14 different flavors, which is something magical to me.  I used to love Gurtzberry and their 4 measly flavors.  No more!  Menchie's always has something delicious to try, like Red Velvet Cake or Dole Pineapple Whip.  I cannot emphasize enough how awesome their fro-yo is.  It doesn't taste like fro-yo, it tastes like delicious ice cream! 

As soon as you go in you are offered little taste tester cups to try as many flavors as you'd like before you decide.  They only have one size at Menchie's and it is up to you if you want a lot or a little in your bowl.  You can mix up any flavors that you want, or just go with one!  Each flavor has a counterpart next to it and you have the option of creating a fro-yo swirl.  It's true.  Last time I did the swirl with Cookies n Cream and Peanut Butter...oh man.  So after you've chosen your yogurt(s), you can go over to the toppings bar.  Think of something you'd like to put on top of frozen yogurt.  Oreos?  They have them.  Kiwi?  They have them.  Yogurt chips?  They have them.  They basically have anything you could possibly think of!  Last time I dressed up my fro-yo with graham cracker crumbs, Oreos, a crapload of strawberries, and some (sugar free, of course ;D) chocolate syrup.  It was amazing. 

Also, you pay by that gives you an idea of how crazy you can get with your fro-yo.  So after J and I finished ours (he finished both of ours...) I had a serious business craving for a delicious Filet Mignon, broccilini, and some sort of potato-y goodness for dinner that night.  J, being the amazing husband and chef that he is, wanted to make this happen for me!  We headed over to Whole Foods to procure the ingredients and that is a whole other post altogether.  To be continued!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Family Brunch

I love brunch.  It is the most brilliant meal to enjoy on (especially a hungover) Sunday.  My parents stayed the night with us last weekend and we invited my in-laws over to get together for a family brunch.  Since I am just venturing into the world of cooking, I decided I'd like to throw something together for everyone.  I wanted to do something fairly easy...something I could do in advance so that I could just enjoy spending time with our family and sip mimosas.  This was the perfect thing!  I can't say enough great things about this simple and delicious recipe.  It was a total hit and even my very picky father in law ate his portion (and a little more) right up and complimented my dish.

I got the basic recipe from Smitten Kitchen.  I used the Boozy Baked French Toast recipe - minus the booze.  We didn't have any of the recommended liquors in the house and so I went with vanilla extract.  Honestly, there are so many ways you can doctor this up.  You can use the liquor of your choice for flavoring, or vanilla extract, or fruit, or nuts, orange zest, or some combination of any of those.  Or something I haven't even thought of.  I plan to make this recipe again and was so easy and so delicious!

To be can also use any type of bread for this recipe, but I highly recommend using Challah bread.  It just makes the best French toast ever, basically.  We only had 1 1/2 cups of whole milk in the house, so I ended up using 1 1/2 cups of soy milk as a substitute and it was still delicious!

We served this with mimosas, broccolini and onion frittata, bacon (of course!), and a fruit salad that my mother in law brought over.  It was a delicious brunch and so easy!  J would happily eat breakfast for dinner any night of the week, so I foresee myself whipping this up many times in the future.  You could even edit the recipe and make it savory if you are so inclined.

Baked French Toast
1 loaf supermarket Challah bread in 1 to 1 1/2 inch slices
3 cups whole milk
3 eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
Cinnamon and sugar for sprinkling

If you like your French toast boozy...(use instead of the vanilla extract)
3 tablespoons Bailey’s and 3 tablespoons Cointreau (original Smitten Kitchen recipe)
Frangelico (hazelnut)
Chambord (raspberry)
Creme de Cassis (black currant)
Grand Marnier (orange)

1. Generously grease a 9×13-inch baking dish with salted or unsalted butter.  Since we made 75 stuffed shells in all of our nice baking dishes, I just used a big throwaway aluminum pan.  It worked just fine!
2. Arrange bread in two tightly-packed layers in the pan. You'll need to cut/rip a piece or two into smaller pieces to fill in the gaps.  If you are using any fillings of fruit and/or nuts, this is the time to put them between the layers and/or sprinkled on top.
3. Whisk milk, eggs, sugar, salt and booze or flavorings of your choice and pour over the bread. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar.  Since J is a chef and all of our spices are jumbo-size, I got cinnamon ALL over the top layer.  Like, way too much.  I feel like this actually ended in my favor.  I spread it as evenly as possible, then I flipped the top layer of Challah over so that my cinnamon mistake would be hidden.  Then I sprinkled just a tiny bit of cinnamon and sugar over the top once again to make it pretty...but this way you get a great cinnamon taste in between the layers.
4. The original recipe doesn't mention this, but I gave all of the bread a gentle push/smash so that it would soak up all of the yummy liquid at the bottom of the pan. 
5. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. The bread will absorb all of the milk custard while you sleep.
6. Bake at 425 for 30 minutes, or until puffed and golden. This will take longer if you have additional layers.
7. Cut into generous squares and serve with maple syrup, fresh fruit, powdered sugar or all of the above.
Serves 6 as main course...but we had enough leftovers for J and I to have it again the next day and it was equally as delicious.

Great Grandma's Stuffed Shells

This past weekend, my parents came to visit me and J in our new house.  Our new house has a beautiful kitchen, which we have been enjoying immensely.  In all of my foodie-dom, I have very recently taken up cooking.  I have been with J since I was 19 and he has always done the cooking...and since he is an amazing chef, I didn't feel the need.  I have always baked ridiculous creations, but now I have found that I can enjoy cooking just as much if not more than baking.  When you bake, you don't know something is a failure until it's complete...with cooking, you can taste and add and change as you go.  Upcoming blog posts will detail my adventures in learning to cook with/for J.

Now, I won't give you the exact recipe to this delicacy passed down through generations in my family (I am the fourth generation to have the pleasure of making this dish), but I will give you the basics and you can make it your own.  To be noted...I could not write an exact recipe even if I wanted.  There isn't a recipe, this dish is simply taught to you by your mother.  You teach your daughter, and so on.  Also, my 100% Italian, beautiful, sweet grandmother is notorious for leaving things out of recipes (she has her secrets) or describing something with absolutely no specifics (as in: "add cheese according to feel" with no details on what the "feel" is).

I have very fond memories of this dish from when I was a kid.  My mom has similar fond memories...basically whenever the whole family gets together and these stuffed shells are served, it turns into somewhat of an eating contest.  There is no prize, other than bragging rights.  All of the siblings/cousins try to outdo one another by eating just ONE MORE SHELL...which can go on indefinitely.  We didn't have such a contest when we ate these on Saturday night, but we did make about 75 stuffed shells (they freeze really well).

Great Grandma's Stuffed Shells

Stuffing - can and should be made in advance.  This will make your day of stuffing a ton of shells far less taxing.  You end up with quite a bit of stuffing...I can't say whether it will make you 36 shells or 75 like it made us.  It depends on the size of your shells.  Any leftover stuffing freezes beautifully or can be used in stuffed peppers...or anything else you think up.

3 lbs ground beef
3 stalks celery
5 cloves garlic
1 medium sweet onion
2 t. dried parsley
1 1/2 cups Italian bread crumbs
1/2 cup Italian cheese  (whatever you have lying around...Romano, Asiago, Parmesan, etc. or a mix)
2 eggs
Salt & pepper to taste

1. Brown beef with a little bit of olive oil until about 3/4 of the way done.  Break it up well and add lots of salt, pepper, and the dried parsley.
2. Finely chop (almost minced) garlic, celery, and onion.  You can do this in a food processor to make your life easier.
3. Add the minced garlic, celery, and onion to the beef and brown it the rest of the way.  Cover and simmer until veggies are soft..about 10 or 15 minutes.
4. Put the bread crumbs in a stand mixer.  When the beef is done, drain most of the liquid and add the beef to the breadcrumbs.  Mix with a flat beater or by hand.
5. Add the Italian cheese and mix lightly. 
6. Let the mixture cool down a bit and add the two eggs (slightly beaten) and lightly mix everything careful not to compress it.
Voila!  Stuffing.

Sauce - also can and should be made in advance.  My grandmother uses marinara sauce, my mom uses meat sauce, and I use a combination of the two.  Any delicious homemade pasta sauce tastes great on these.  The stuffing is the real star, so nothing too crazy for the sauce and go easy on the cheese on top.
I'm not including a sauce recipe because it's really a to each her own type deal.  Make your favorite marinara sauce, meat sauce, or somewhere in between.

To turn the stuffing into stuffed shells...
(use room temperature sauce)

You'll need a couple glass baking pans...we ended up using three.
1 or 2 packages of jumbo pasta shells (depending on size)

1. Cook shells for half time of what package directs (usually about 7 minutes)
2. Spread a small amount of sauce on the bottom of pan
3. Stuff each shell and place in sauced pan
4. Pour room temperature sauce all over the shells

Usually at this point we start drinking wine, if we haven't already.  The shells go in the refrigerator, covered with foil, and all of the extras can go in the freezer.  When it's time for dinner, take them out of the fridge and put them in the oven for about 45 minutes (still covered with foil) at 350.

After they are fully cooked, sprinkle a bit of cheese on top...mozzarella or any Italian cheese blend.  Put them back in the oven until the cheese melts. 

You can thank me later.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Sushi and Champagne ♥

A little bit about me as a preface to this first post...

(Warning - next sentence is goo-filled) I am madly, insanely, ridiculously in love with my husband.  He is a successful research and development chef for a very prominent restaurant company.  He is also a sommelier, so we eat and drink very well.  He has to travel fairly often to "do research" (eat a ridiculous amount of delicious food and wine) or to test his recipes.  Recently, he has been testing food and traveling quite a bit.  Last week he was in Las Vegas testing (and of course eating at beautiful restaurants like Bouchon) and he returned home on Friday.  We, of course, decided to go out to dinner that night to celebrate our reunion!

We decided to try out Funky Monkey Wine Company for the first time.  They have a very eccentric and eclectic menu, it's close to our house, oh and we happened to have a gift certificate to burn.  From the outside, Funky Monkey doesn't look like much.  Once you're still doesn't exactly look like much.  But, the food was delicious!

We started off with drinks of course.  I had a glass of prosecco and my husband (from here on out he will be known as J) had one of the most tasty beers I think I have ever had the pleasure of sipping.  It was complex and layered and flavorful...and I cannot for the life of me remember the name of it (which must mean that I had a good time).  I'll find out and include that in a later post.  It was brilliant.  I even ordered a glass of it, which I almost never do.  If you know me you know that I will always, always, always choose a light cocktail, champagne, or wine over beer.  It was that good.  Might I add that we were at a restaurant with WINE COMPANY in the name?

The menu at Funky Monkey is all over the place.  They have everything from truffle fries to a half duck to hummus to a full sushi menu.  We didn't know whether to get a bunch of small plates, go with an appetizer and some of the (very delicious sounding) entrees, or just get a bunch of sushi.

We ended up deciding to go in the sushi direction...which is a direction I am always happy to go in.  J loves cooking mostly anything, but he loathes making sushi at home.  He does whip it up on very special occasions (like the night he proposed to me), but ultimately if we want sushi...we go out.  It's better for everyone that way - I get my sushi, a non-whiny husband, and he gets to eat his weight in sushi which always makes him very happy.

We started out with the "Mini Monkey Purses," which are basically a crab wonton.  They came with a sweet chili dipping sauce on the side that I would most likely slather on anything I could get my hands on, but...I love sweet chili.  My favorite roll that we ordered was the Funky Monkey...spicy Ahi tuna, avocado, cucumber, cream cheese, sesame seeds, and wasabi.  It was rich from the cream cheese and avocado, but still light and fresh.  The wasabi gave it just the right punch and spicy Ahi tuna is heaven sent to me.  My least favorite, shockingly, was the Lobster roll.  It consisted of Maine lobster, cucumber, avocado, and (way too much) lemon aioli & lemon zest.  All I could taste was lemon...over the soy, over the wasabi, over the lobster...shame!  The other rolls that we got were tasty, not quite as delicious or memorable as the Funky Monkey roll.  Despite this, they were gone in record time...even with "sushi breaks" which we have had to implement in our sushi consuming.

Our conclusion was...Funky Monkey is really good!  Next time we plan on ordering one sushi roll for an appetizer and trying some of their other cuisines.  Our server was wonderful and very helpful as well.  While it's not the best restaurant in Orlando (I am a Ravenous Pig and Luma girl), it is very good and we certainly will go back.  The dessert menu looked very appealing, but we decided to be good and skip it.  Until we had frozen yogurt in bed later.

Lobster Roll I Maine Lobster, avocado, lemon zest, cucumber, lemon aioli