October 31, 2010

Menu Planning: When Life Gets in the Way, part 1

The last couple weeks have been... let's say interesting, in terms of menu planning.   Like in the Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times." 

Last week, we knew we were going to be away from home Friday night and most of Saturday.  I planned to do some cooking while we were off visiting relatives, in between shopping at farmer's markets and other fun stuff, but we didn't know when we were going to get back.  Thus, we had to leave some of that week's cooking unplanned, and fill it in as we went.  We also had to make what plans we could based around the travel, which would necessitate some things that were pretty quick to make and wouldn't require a lot of shopping. 

As I considered what to make in the coming week, the basic plan was pretty clear:  I was going to cook something on Thursday; we'd eat out before getting on the road on Friday; I'd make some cookies on Friday night or Saturday AM, planning to take some of them to my work's pot luck lunch the next Wednesday; on the way home on Saturday we'd figure what to make for dinner based on our expected time back home; Sunday I'd make something a bit more elaborate; and Monday I'd make something pretty quick, and that way also have time to make something else to take to the pot luck. 

The cooking selections that I could plan ahead - everything but Saturday - started to fall into place pretty quickly.  I had already decided to make one of the new main dish recipes I'd been designing for awhile for Sunday's dinner, and I'd make the 30-Minute Meatloaf recipe for dinner on Monday, since that was fairly quick and Juli and I had both loved it when I'd made it before.  Picking where we were going to eat on Friday was also a no-brainer, since we hadn't been to our favorite Indian restaurant in awhile.  So, on Monday, I already had some of the blanks filled in for the next week, as so:

Thursday, Oct. 21 - Dinner - ?
Friday, Oct 22 - Dinner - Eat Out/India Star
Fri nite/Sat AM - make cookies ?
Saturday, October 23 - Dinner - ?
Sunday, October 24 - Dinner - Chicken Breasts Stuffed with
                                                 Apples, Cranberries and Goat Cheese
                                - served with?
Monday, October 25 - Dinner - 30-Minute Meatloaf
                                - served with?
                                - plus ? for potluck

From there, I started looking at my various cooking resources for ideas.  I looked through some of my first-line cookbooks, the recent episodes of my various cooking magazines, the Cook's Illustrated website and various cooking blogs and recipe sites I follow, plus I flipped through some less-used cookbooks and files, envelopes and binders full of miscellaneous recipes.  I quickly decided on a recipe from ATK's 30-Minute Suppers - Parmesan Chicken Cutlets with Cherry Tomato Salad - for Thursday night, as a quick read of the recipe confirmed it would be fast as well as tasty.  Saturday's dinner would still have to wait until we knew when we'd be home, so I would have to pack some of my more reliable resources to consult during the trip home.  Since our garden was still giving us some late - and quite tasty - cherry and grape tomatoes, I decided I'd make something with those to go with Sunday's dinner.  Flipping through cookbooks, I saw a couple recipes featuring snow peas and sugar snap peas, which gave me the idea to pick up either some fresh or frozen of one or the other of those, depending on what was available at the store.  I knew the store we usually shop at reliably carried frozen sugar snap peas, so one way or another I'd have what I needed.  Add some herbs, salt and pepper and toss with olive oil and the snow peas or sugar snap peas would make a salad. 

I still needed some sides to go with the 30-Minute Meatloaves.  Potatoes are a natural companion to the meatloaf, and I knew the same book that had that recipe also had a variety of potato recipes, as I'd made several of them already.  I'd been considering making the Roasted Garlic Potatoes for awhile now, and figured Monday would be as good a time as any, but I still needed a vegetable dish.  I knew we were going to a farmer's market over the weekend, though, so I decided to wait and see what we bought there before deciding what else to make to round off the meatloaf dinner.

That left me needing to decide what sorts of cookies to make, and what else I might make for the pot luck.  (Not that the cookies wouldn't be enough on their own, but since I started on my cooking craze, I've rather enjoyed pot lucks as a way to show off what I've been doing.)  The Coconut-Oatmeal Cookies Juli loves so much were a given.  I'd also been giving some thought to the Chewy Sugar Cookies recipe in the latest issue of Cook's Illustrated, and especially the Coconut-Lime variant of that recipe, so I decided to try that out.  I also had been working on some cookie and muffin recipes, and decided that on Monday evening, I'd make some muffins to go with the cookies. 

That filled out most of the week's menu, save for one a couple things I had decided to fill in on the way back from our trip.  So, on Thursday I was able to do some of the shopping for the upcoming week.  I also knew I'd be packing some of my kitchen tools and a few ingredients to take along, and that I'd be doing some grocery shopping for other needed ingredients once we got there, then do some more shopping for the rest of the week's cooking once we got back home.  At that point, the menu was as follows:

Thursday, Oct. 21 - Dinner - Parmesan Chicken Cutlets with Cherry Tomato Salad
Friday, Oct 22 - Dinner - Eat Out/India Star
Fri nite/Sat AM - make cookies - Thin and Crispy Coconut-Oatmeal Cookies and
                                                    Chewy Coconut-Lime Sugar Cookies
Saturday, October 23 - Dinner - ?
Sunday, October 24 - Dinner - Chicken Breasts Stuffed with
                                                 Apples, Cranberries and Goat Cheese
                                - served with Sugar Snap Pea and Cherry Tomato Salad.
Monday, October 25 - Dinner - 30-Minute Meatloaf
                                - served with Roasted Garlic Potatoes and ?
                                - plus Pumpkin and Chocolate Chip Muffins for potluck

As it turns out, we did indeed find something at the farmer's market that gave me an idea what to make with the meatloaves and potatoes on Monday, and on the way home I decided to try out my own spin on Chili Mac.  That completed my menu plan for the week, as follows:

Thursday, Oct. 21 - Dinner - Parmesan Chicken Cutlets with Cherry Tomato Salad
Friday, Oct 22 - Dinner - Eat Out/India Star
Fri nite/Sat AM - make cookies - Thin and Crispy Coconut-Oatmeal Cookies and
                                                    Chewy Coconut-Lime Sugar Cookies
Saturday, October 23 - Dinner - Spicy Chili Mac
Sunday, October 24 - Dinner - Chicken Breasts Stuffed with
                                                 Apples, Cranberries and Goat Cheese
                                - served with Sugar Snap Pea and Cherry Tomato Salad.
Monday, October 25 - Dinner - 30-Minute Meatloaf
                                - served with Roasted Garlic Potatoes and
                                            Green Beans with Creamy Mushroom Sauce
                                - plus Pumpkin and Chocolate Chip Muffins for potluck

Normally I like to plan things out completely in advance, to minimize shopping time, but that wasn't possible on this occasion.  I had to go into the week's cooking not completely knowing what I was going to make, and fill in the blanks as I went along.   It worked out fine, though I did look forward to things being more planned out the next week.

It didn't quite work out that way, though...

(to be continued)

Pumpkin and Red Lentil Curry Soup & Sweet and Hot Shrimp Curry

For lunch yesterday, I made two new Indian recipes.  Both were inspired by recipes in Camellia Panjabi's 50 Great Curries of India, but while I used recipes from that book as a starting point, by the time I put my own spin on them, they ended up as something distinctly different.  Both were also quite good.

The one that represents the greatest departure from the recipe in Panjabi's book is Pumpkin and Lentil Curry Soup.  I started with a recipe for masoor dal (red lentils), but decided to mix several things around, include more pumpkin and make it into something more distinctly a soup.

The other new recipe, Sweet and Hot Shrimp Curry, is based on Panjabi's recipe for Shrimps in Sweet and Hot Curry.  My changes mostly involve some changes in the amounts of various ingredients, but are substantial enough to make it a different recipe. 

Both of these recipes utilize something I recently picked up for the first time, tamarind concentrate.  Lots of Thai and Indian recipes call for soaking tamarind pulp in warm water and straining out the resulting juice (tamarind pulp itself isn't really edible, but the strained liquid has a distinct, sweet-tangy flavor).  I've always found that a bit of a pain, really.  The tamarind concentrate - more or less that same strained liquid, only thickened into a paste - allows one to skip that step and still get the same flavor.  I consider this a great find, personally.

I served the two dishes up with seasoned basmati rice (basmati prepared as normal, but with a large pinch each of garam masala and turmeric) and a pair of Indian breads.  Normally we have just been preparing frozen naan with our Indian meals, but last time we stopped by Maria Grocery and Gifts, Juli accidentally grabbed several packages of roti instead.  As it turns out, the round, whole-wheat roti are just as great as the naan we've been buying, so we plan to use both from now on, for variety.

The two dishes worked well together.   The soup was flavorful, but fairly mild, such that it might have seemed a bit boring on its own, but it perfectly complemented the bold heat and sweetness of the thick curry sauce that covered the shrimp.

Pumpkin and Red Lentil Curry Soup

yield = approx. 8 generous servings

1       pound masoor dal (split red lentils)
1       tablespoon butter
1       large onion, finely chopped
2       green hot chilis, minced
1       tablespoon grated ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1       teaspoon ground coriander
1       teaspoon chili powder
1/2    teaspoon cumin powder
1       sugar pie pumpkin, peeled, seeded and strings removed
         (about 1 pound)
1       can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes
1/2    teaspoon salt
2       teaspoons tamarind concentrate
2       tablespoons lime juice
1/2    teaspoon garam masala
3/4    teaspoon ground cinnamon

Rinse the lentils, then set aside.

Bring 11 cups of water to a boil in a Dutch oven.  While the water heats up, heat the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat, then fry the onions and chilis until the onion is nearing golden-brown (about 6 minutes).  Stir in the ginger and garlic and cook another minute, then stir in the ground coriander, the chili powder and the ground cumin and cook for one minute more.

When the water has come to a boil, add the lentils, the pumpkin, the onion mixture, tomatoes and salt to the Dutch oven.  Return to a full boil, then reduce heat to high simmer and cook for about 45 minutes, stirring often. 

Remove the soup from heat, and puree about half of it, including all pumpkin chunks and large pieces of tomato, in a blender.  Return the puree to the Dutch oven and reheat to a low simmer.  Stir in the tamarind concentrate and lime juice, then pour the soup into a serving bowl.  Sprinkle with the garam masala and cinnamon, then serve.

If one wishes to make a complete meal of this soup, stir in an ample helping of rice.

Sweet and Hot Shrimp Curry

yield = 4 servings

4        green hot chilis, chopped
2        teaspoons minced garlic
1        teaspoon cumin seeds
2        tablespoons vegetable oil
1        large onion, finely chopped
1        teaspoon garam masala
3/4     teaspoon ground coriander
3/4     teaspoon chili powder
1/2     teaspoon ground cumin
1/2     teaspoon powdered turmeric
1        14.5 oz can diced tomatoes
1 1/2  teaspoon tamarind concentrate
1        teaspoon grated jaggery or palm sugar
10      curry leaves
1/4     cup coarsely-chopped cilantro leaves
3/4     teaspoon salt
1        pound shrimp, peeled and deveined

Grind the chilis, garlic and cumin seeds into a paste; set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Cook the onions until they are starting to brown.  Add the chili/garlic paste and fry for two minutes, stirring well.  Add the garam masala, coriander, chili powder, cumin and turmeric and stir constantly for 1 minute.  Add the tomatoes and fry for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. 

Stir in the tamarind concentrate, jaggery, curry leaves, cilantro and salt and cook for about 2 minutes.  Taste; adjust sweetness, sourness and saltiness to taste, if necessary.  Add 1/2 cup water and bring to a boil.  Add the shrimp and cook until they are done, stirring often.  Serve with rice and Indian bread.

October 30, 2010

Blueberry Pancake Breakfast

I was up well before Juli this morning, so I decided to get some errands done, and while I was out and about, I decided to pick up a few things for breakfast as well.  I'd been looking at some recipes recently, so when I decided what to make, I also knew what things I'd have to pick up.

I decided to make Blueberry Pancakes, using the recipe originally printed in the July 2003 Cook's Illustrated,  Since we were well-stocked with sugar, butter, flour and the like, I knew the only things I'd really need to pick up were buttermilk (which I like to keep in stock anyhow, but which we currently did not have) and some fresh blueberries.

When I got home, the batter came together quickly:  melt a bit of butter, mix the melted butter and an egg into the buttermilk, mix that in with the dry ingredients.  Quick and easy.  Then I cooked them up in our handy Presto Electric Skillet along with some sausage patties.

After setting the table and pouring some juice, we were ready to eat in short order.  Fast and very, very tasty.   And now we've got some nice leftovers to warm up for a quick, tasty breakfast tomorrow morning.

October 29, 2010

Mini Meat Loaves, Roasted Garlic Potatoes and Green Beans with Creamy Mushroom Sauce

Monday night's supper featured two recipes taken from the America's Test Kitchen Special Edition Best-Ever Recipes, which I have previously reviewed (http://jeffreyandjulicook.blogspot.com/2010/09/best-ever-recipes-lives-up-to-its-title.html) and frequently mentioned, as well as an original creation of my own. 

The centerpiece of the meal was the 30-Minute Meatloaf, a recipe that originally appeared in the Oct 2006 issue of Cook's Country.  These mini-meatloaves are briefly browned in a skillet then baked in the oven on a broiler pan, which allows fat to drip away from the meatloaf, insuring a meatloaf that is firm and nicely browned on the outside, yet moist on the inside and delicious all the way through.  I've made this one before, and Juli and I had both been wanting it again.  It's a five-star recipe for both of us, and has in fact made my short list of "go to" recipes.  It's highly recommended, and it really is quite fast to prepare.

Monday was the first time I tried the recipe for Roasted Garlic Potatoes, which originally appeared in the April, 2006 Cook's Country.  It's sort of a combination roasted/oven fried potato recipe, which produces wonderfully seasoned potatoes that are nicely crisped on the outside yet moist and creamy on the inside.  This recipe took the most time of the three, as it requires the potatoes to be in the oven for about 45 minutes total and flipped partway through.  All worked great, though, as I was able to get the meatloaves ready to go into the oven during that time. 

I also wanted a vegetable dish to go with the meat main course and the potato side, and since meatloaf and potatoes are very basic foods - comfort foods, almost - I wanted a vegetable dish that was similarly homey.  As we get closer to Thanksgiving, I've been thinking a lot about that traditional favorite, green bean casserole, and that led me to make up a recipe somewhat inspired by that casserole.  We picked up some great, fresh green beans at a farmer's market over the weekend, so I used those and made up a a creamy mushroom sauce thickened with French fried potatoes.  The finishing touch is to top the beans and sauce with more French fried potatoes, thus evoking the full the texture and flavor palate of the familiar casserole.  It was quite tasty, not to mention fast and easy to make, and I expect this might also become something of a go-to recipe, as it is a pretty basic side dish that can potentially go with a lot of things.

Anyway, everything was ready to eat in about 1 hour, and all three recipes were a success.  I greatly recommend both of the ones that are not my own creation, and also believe that you will be quite pleased if you try out the one I did create.

Green Beans with Creamy Mushroom Sauce

yield = 4 servings

1     pound fresh green beans
4     ounces fresh white mushrooms, thinly sliced
1     tablespoon butter
1     cup half and half
2/3  cup chicken broth
1/2  teaspoon garlic powder
       salt and pepper to taste
1     cup + 1./2 cup French fried onions

Steam the green beans until cooked.   Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat then saute the mushrooms until they are soft (about 2 minutes).  Add the half and half, chicken broth, garlic powder and salt and pepper to taste.  Bring the liquid to a simmer, then stir in 1 cup of the French fried onions and cook until the sauce is thickened. 

Serve the green beans in a bowl, topped with the mushroom sauce and 1/2 cup of French fried onions.

October 28, 2010

Spaghetti and Meatballs with Quick Marinara Sauce

Recently I made up a batch of spaghetti and meatballs.  I didn't make the meatballs myself.  Instead, I used some of the meatballs made at Graziano Bros. Grocery, which we picked up during a recent shopping trip and kept in the freezer until we were ready to use them.  If you are going to do any sort of Italian cooking and live anywhere near Des Moines, Graziano Bros. is the place to shop.

I didn't make the pasta, either.  From what I've read and seen, making pasta for oneself is more trouble than it is worth, so I'm perfectly happy to buy good pasta made by someone else.  But I did make the marinara sauce, from my own recipe.  The recipe includes an important time-saving step, though at the cost of needing to wash an extra pan.
My very first step in preparing the meal was to start cooking the crushed tomatoes.  After getting that going, I started heating up the oven to 350 degrees.  Before it was heated up, I took the meatballs out of the freezer, put them atop a wire rack above a casserole dish and put them in the oven.  This way they could defrost and cook while I got everything else ready.   After frying up the onions and garlic, I started boiling water for the pasta, then went back to finishing up the marinara.  By having already cooked down the crushed tomatoes during the same time I was making the rest of the sauce, I saved a bunch of time from what it would have taken to add the tomatoes to the Dutch oven directly from the can and then have the sauce cook down and thicken.  This way, all I had to do was mix the thickened crushed tomatoes with the mixture in the Dutch oven, then mix in the cheeses and fresh basil. 

Next I added the meatballs - nicely cooked by this time - to the sauce and stirred them around to coat them.  By then the water was boiling, so I tossed the spaghetti into the pot with the boiling water, stirred it to keep it from sticking together, then got the marinara and meatballs ready to serve while the pasta cooked.   A few minutes later the pasta was drained and everything was ready to serve.  All that remained was to grate some Parmesan atop the served-up pasta, then it was time to eat.  

The sauce was richly flavorful and had a wonderful, thick texture that stuck well to the spaghetti and which wasn't the least bit watery.  Juli and I both think it compares well to the best red sauces we've had in better Italian restaurants, and surpasses most of them.  But, as always, I invite you to try it out for yourself.  If you do, let us know what you think.

Quick Marinara Sauce

yield = 5-6 servings
36     ounces crushed tomatoes (one large 28-oz can plus another cup)
2       tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1       large onion, minced
1       teaspoon minced garlic
1       6 ounce can of tomato paste
2       teaspoons dried oregano
1/2    cup red wine (I used a Merlot)
1/4    cup water
1       teaspoon sugar
1       teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1       teaspoon salt
1/8    teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4    cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1       tablespoon freshly-grated Parmesan cheese
2       tablespoons chopped fresh basil

Heat crushed tomato in a large saucepan over medium heat and cook it until it has thickened significantly.
Meanwhile, add the oil to a Dutch oven and heat at medium-high.  Add the onion and cook it, stirring frequently, until golden.  Stir in the garlic and cook for about 1 minute, then stir in the tomato paste and oregano and cook until fragrant (about 1 minute).   Reduce heat to medium, stir in the red wine and water and cook for 1-2 minutes, then stir in the sugar, black pepper, salt and red pepper flakes.   
By that point, the crushed tomato should have cooked down.  Add the thickened crushed tomatoes to the Dutch oven, stir thoroughly and cook for about 2 minutes to let the flavors blend.  Stir in the cheddar and Parmesan cheeses and the basil and cook for 2-3 minutes.  
If you are serving the sauce alone over pasta, ravioli, etc., it is ready to serve.  If you are serving it with meatballs, stir in the already-cooked meatballs, cook for another 1-2 minutes and serve.

Sugar Snap Pea and Cherry Tomato Salad

This is a quick and tasty little side dish I came up with to serve alongside the stuffed chicken breast recipe I posted last evening.  We were both pretty happy with it - much happier than we were with the chicken, in fact.

Sugar Snap Pea and Cherry Tomato Salad

1     pint cherry tomatoes, quartered
1     tablespoon fresh basil, chopped
1     tablespoon fresh chives, chopped
1     tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
       salt and pepper to taste
1     package frozen sugar snap peas

Add quartered cherry tomatoes and herbs to a medium bowl.  Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil, then season to taste with salt and pepper.  Toss to mix, then set aside.

Add 1 teaspoon of olive oil to a medium skillet and heat at medium-high.  Add the snap peas and stir fry until they are just starting to turn tender (about 4 minutes).  Add the snap peas to the bowl with the tomato mixture.  Toss to mix, then serve.

One can use frozen sugar snap peas or snow peas in place of the fresh sugar snap peas called for in this recipe. Simply prepare the snap or snow peas as according to the package direction and toss with the tomato and herb mixture. Or, one can use fresh snow peas in place of the fresh sugar snap peas; simply reduce the stir-frying time to about 2 minutes.

October 27, 2010

Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Goat Cheese, Apples and Cranberries

Juli and I have been enjoying the food of the season.  In addition to enjoying lots of apples and squash, we were very happy to see fresh cranberries show up in the store.  I was happy about this not just because we love cranberries - though we do - but also because I'd been giving some thought to a new recipe for several weeks, but had needed fresh cranberries to actually make it.

The basic recipe idea was pretty straight-forward:  chicken breasts stuffed with bits of cranberries, apples and spices, all held together by a soft cheese of some sort.   The question was, where to go from there?   Although I love stuffed chicken breasts, I hadn't ever made anything quite like what I was envisioning.  I knew this would take some research.

I consulted a bunch of cookbooks, as well as various recipes and videos available at the Cook's Illustrated website and some others I found on YouTube.  The videos and the Cook's Illustrated recipes turned out to be the most helpful, so credit where due:  the recipe below, while my own creation, does incorporate a bunch of ideas I took from Cook's Illustrated and from some videos posted online by amateur cooks.   I take full ownership of any problems with the recipe, though.

Essentially, there are two main ways to stuff a chicken breast.  One is to cut the breast - either all the way, and fold it open like a book, or simply cutting a wide, deep slit in the thick edge of the breast - and put the stuffing inside that way.   The other is to pound a chicken breast flat, spread the stuffing on the flattened chicken breast, then roll it up.  Since I wanted to use a fair bit of stuffing, I went with the second option.  I also decided to bread the chicken breast and fry it briefly before baking it, in order to help the whole thing hold together. 

The recipe below outlines the procedure I used.  The result was okay, but I think this one will need some continued tinkering.  Made as written in the first draft of my recipe, the filling didn't quite work out as I'd hoped.  The apple flavor got overwhelmed by the spices and the cranberries.  Juli also found the taste of the thyme a bit overpowering in general, and while the goat cheese did add a bit of unique flavor to the filling, she questioned whether it was worth including, especially given the cost of goat cheese and how hard it can be to find if one doesn't have access to large or specialty markets.  Thus, the recipe write-up below reflects some revisions from how we actually prepared the dish.  In the recipe below, the amount of thyme is halved and  the amount of fruit is increased from 1/4 cup each of apple and cranberry to 1/2 cup finely minced apple and 1/2 cup chopped cranberries, compared to the amounts we used in preparing the recipe.

As I already noted, I'm not entirely satisfied with the recipe at this point.  It's okay, but not great enough to justify all the work put into it.  Plus, the leftovers didn't warm up particularly well.  I like the basic idea, though, so I expect I'll continue to tinker with this dish.  Meanwhile, this recipe should be considered very much a work in progress, and any feedback readers might offer would be most appreciated.

Foreground:  Cranberry-Cider Sauce, Stuffed Chicken Breasts

Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Goat Cheese, Apples and Cranberries

yield = 4 servings

1     tablespoon unsalted butter
1     small onion, minced
1/2  teaspoon minced garlic
2     ounces softened cream cheese
4     ounces goat cheese
1/2  cup  peeled, seeded, cored and finely diced apples
1/3  cup fresh cranberries, chopped
1     teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/2   teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1/2  teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
1/4  teaspoon table salt

Chicken Roll-Ups
4     boneless, skinless chicken breasts
       Salt and pepper to taste
1     cup unbleached all-purpose flour
4     large eggs
1 ½ cups panko bread crumbs
3/4  cup vegetable oil

Cranberry-Cider Sauce
1      cup apple cider
1      sprig fresh rosemary
1      cup fresh cranberries
1      teaspoon honey
1      teaspoon instant tapioca

Heat butter in a skillet over medium heat until melted.  Add onion and saute, stirring occasionally, until deep golden brown, about 15 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for an additional minute, then remove skillet from heat and set aside.

Using a stand mixture, beat the cream cheese on medium to low-medium speed until it is light and fluffy.  Stir in onion mixture, thyme, rosemary, goat cheese, cranberries, apples, nuts, salt and pepper.

Place each chicken breast between two sheets of plastic wrap.  Pound each chicken breast, starting at the middle and working out toward the edges and being careful to not shred or tear the meat.  Pound each breast to an even thickness of 1/4 inch.

Turn each chicken breast skin-side down.  Spread 1/4 of the cheese mixture on the upper surface of each chicken breast, then roll each breast up, starting at the most narrow end.  Tuck in the ends of the rolled-up chicken breasts, wrap each breast tightly in aluminum foil and refrigerate for an hour or so, or place in freezer for about 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 400 degrees.  Place flour in one shallow dish.  Beat the eggs in another shallow dish.  Place panko crumbs in a third dish.  Place a wire rack in a wide baking pan or on a rimmed cookie sheet.

Remove one chicken breast from the foil.  Sprinkle it with salt and pepper, then roll it in the flour to coat it evenly, shaking off any loose flour.  Next roll it in the egg to coat.  Let excess egg drip off, then roll the chicken breast in the panko crumbs, pressing firmly to coat evenly.  Place the coated chicken breast on the wire rack.  Repeat the process with the other chicken breasts. 

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.  Add each chicken breast, seam-side down, and cook for 2-3 minutes.  Using tongs, turn the chicken breasts over to cook all sides until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side.   Place each chicken breast back on the wire rack, seam side down.  Place the pan or cookie sheet with the wire rack and chicken breasts into the oven and bake until deep golden brown (15-20 minutes).  Remove from oven and let stand 5 minutes.

While the chicken breasts are baking, make the sauce.  Pour cider and broth in a sauce pan.  Add the rosemary sprig and bring the liquid to a boil.  Remove the rosemary sprig, add the cranberries and apple pieces, return to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook 3 minutes.  Add the tapioca and cook until thickened.

Cut each chicken breast crosswise, making 5 slices.  Serve and cover with the sauce.

If you wish, you can simply use 6 oz. of cream cheese and omit the goat cheese.  The flavor will not be exactly the same, but the difference is small compared to the cost of goat cheese.

Keema Mattar, or Quick Make-Do Indian

I ended up coming home early from work yesterday due to a really unpleasant sinus headache.  I didn't feel well enough to do much of anything, but we still needed to eat.  I really didn't feel like shopping, so I checked our fridge, freezers and pantry to see what I could toss together with a minimum of fuss.  Among other things, my search turned up onions, ginger, green chilis, cans of diced tomatoes, a package of ground lamb and half a bag of frozen peas, and it occurred to me that those things go together in some basic Indian dishes.  Once I got that idea, the rest of the dish came together pretty easily.  

Except for one thing.  A spicy minced-meat curry would almost always either incorporate some yogurt, or be served with a raita (a relish of yogurt, cucumber and other cooling ingredients)... and we, unfortunately, had no plain yogurt.  We had plenty of containers of flavored yogurt, but that wouldn't work here.

We did, however, have some sour cream, and while sour cream isn't exactly a traditional Indian ingredient (at least not to my knowledge), I figured sour cream and yogurt were enough alike (soured milk products) that the sour cream would do in a pinch.  And, as it turns out, it worked wonderfully.  Served up with some naan, this simple lamb curry made for a great meal.  Juli gave this dish five stars.  Pretty good for something I threw together in a pinch.

Best of all, this dish was quick to make.  Due to the headache, I was moving kind of slowly and was less organized than usual, and it was still done in just a little over a half hour, so under normal conditions it should take less than a half hour. 

Jeffrey's Keema Mattar with Tomatoes

Yield = 3 servings if served with just a bread, or 4 if served with a side dish.

2       tablespoons sliced almonds
1 1/2 tablespoons butter or ghee
1       small onion, chopped fine
1       two-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and grated
1       teaspoon minced garlic
2       fresh green chilis, chopped fine
1       teaspoon ground cumin
1       teaspoon ground coriander
1       teaspoon garam masala
1/2    teaspoon turmeric
1       pound ground lamb
1       14 ounce can of diced tomatoes
3       tablespoons sour cream or plain yogurt
1       tablespoon lemon juice
1       cup frozen peas
2       tablespoons cilantro, chopped + a few leaves for garnish
1/2    teaspoon salt
         additional sour cream or yogurt to garnish, if desired

Heat a small skillet over medium heat.  Dry fry the almond pieces, stirring frequently, until they turn golden brown.  Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter.  Add the onion, ginger, garlic and chilis and fry until the onion is softened and transparent, about 5 minutes.  

Stir in the spices and cook until fragrant (about 40 seconds), then stir in the ground lamb and cook until the lamb is no longer pink.  Add the tomatoes and cook until all the liquid has cooked off, about, approximately 10 minutes.

Stir in the toasted almonds, sour cream (or yogurt), lemon juice, frozen peas, chopped cilantro and salt.  Cook until most of the liquid has cooked off.  Garnish with cilantro leaves and serve with naan or other Indian bread, and with sour cream or yogurt, if desired.

October 26, 2010

Community Apple Orchard - Fort Dodge, Iowa

Last weekend Jeffrey and I went to visit family in Fort Dodge.  We had a great time!  The Fort Dodge Farmer's Market is very good, and we were able to pick up a bunch of our new favorite squash, the red kuri.  These squash are a very deep orange-red and are shown on the far right in the picture below.  They're about the same size as the green acorn squash on the far left that you might be more familiar with. 

Red kuri are very flavorful and sweet, maybe just a bit sweeter than butternut squash.  They're great in soups and casseroles, and are the perfect size for stuffing.  I like to slice them in half and bake them in a 350 degree oven with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice.  Allow 1/2 to a whole squash per person. 

We also made time to go to the Community Apple Orchard, even though we were just there in September, because we like a variety of apples, and they don't all ripen at the same time. 

We were greeted by spooky tin scarecrows:

and less spooky tin billy goats (I love these!):

Isn't the fall color great?

Gourds, gourds, everywhere!

We bought a big bag of Haralson apples, because I want to try my hand at making apple sauce.  We got a good deal on the "seconds", which we were assured had never touched the ground.  They're just not cosmetically pretty.  Haralson apples are very crisp and tart - perfect for cooking and baking.  And the young man that helped us make our selection, which involved taste-testing several varieties of apples, was very helpful.  We were impressed that a teenager would know which apples would be best for the chunky applesauce I want to make!

The brown spots aren't bruises and won't affect the flavor at all!

Pumpkin and Chocolate Chip Muffins

Lately, Juli and I have been thinking a lot about foods associated with this time of year:  cranberries, apple cider, roast turkey and - most relevant to this post - pumpkin.   Juli recently made up excellent batches of pumpkin bread and pumpkin muffins, which we have been greatly enjoying.   My office has a pot luck coming up, for which everyone is supposed to bring a normal lunch for him or herself, but also bring some sort of dessert to share.   I signed up to bring some cookies and muffins, and decided I'd also like to try my hand at pumpkin muffins, and at coming up with a recipe that was both different from, and as good as, the pumpkin, cranberry and pecan muffins she made.

I knew that whatever I ended up making, it would be a new experience for me, because while I've eaten a fair number of muffins over the years - some great, some not so good, and a few that were downright terrible - this would be the first time I'd ever cooked muffins.

I looked through cookbooks, cooking blogs and online recipe sites, and while I found some recipes that looked pretty good, I didn't find one that really struck my fancy, so I decided to come up with one of my own.  In doing so, I studied some basic muffin recipes and how-to advice, and gave thought to what had and had not worked well in various muffins I'd had, and what I might do to make more than just another muffin.  That led me to make a few decisions in designing my own recipe.

First off, I had to decide whether or not to add bits of some sort of fruit or nuts to give the muffins more range of texture and flavor.   Though I love cranberries, I didn't want my muffins to be too much like the great ones Juli had already made in the recent past, so that ruled out cranberries.  I also considered raisins, apple chunks and various other options, as well as different sorts of nuts, but finally decided to go with something else:  chocolate chips.   I'd tried a couple other pumpkin muffin recipes that used chocolate chips, not to mention some pumpkin and banana bread recipes that used the chips, and I'd always liked those.  Plus, I figured the dark bits of chocolate along with the orange-brown of the rest of the muffin would look good as a Halloween-time food.

The next decision was a bit more difficult.  Traditionally, muffin recipes have called for oil of some sort in order to make a moist muffin.  Over the past couple decades, though, a lot of people have looked for healthier alternatives to all that oil, and one of the most common alternatives is applesauce.  I will admit to going into this project with a bit of a bias against the applesauce option, mostly because a lot of the time when I've had muffins made with applesauce instead of oil, I've often found them flavorless and unpleasant - albeit with a reasonably moist texture.   In my experience, a lot of people who used applesauce in muffins have often been so concerned about making a healthy muffin that as they also loaded it with whole grains and bran and seeds and so forth, they forgot to make something that actually tasted good and wasn't so dense as to render it nearly inedible. 

Nonetheless, in designing my own recipe, I decided that I would go the applesauce route.  I made this choice not so much for health reasons as to produce the blend of flavors I wanted.  Since I was making pumpkin muffins, I wanted to use other ingredients that conveyed an autumn flavor, and applesauce fit that bill.  Along the same lines, rather than go with a fair bit of water or perhaps milk (both common in muffin recipes), I decided to go with something that would boost both the fruit flavor of the muffins and the spices that tend to go well with pumpkins.  Thus, I added some apple cider to the mix.  I doubt I'm the first person to have come up with this idea, but I didn't see it in any of the recipes I consulted.    It did occur to me that maybe I didn't see apple cider listed in any muffin recipes because it resulted in crappy muffins, but I decided to go with it anyhow.  Even if the result wasn't good, I'd at least learn something.

I needn't have worried.  The apple cider idea worked great, and so did the recipe as a whole.  I didn't use as much sugar as do a lot of muffin recipes, but between the applesauce, the cider and the chocolate chips, they aren't lacking in sweetness.  They're moist and chewy, with a nice blend of flavors:  warm spices, creamy pumpkin with an apple undertone and sweet-bitter, dark chocolate.  About the only thing I might do differently, should I make these again, is to forego the water entirely in favor of more apple cider.

Anyhow, along with a bunch of the cookies I made last weekend, these will round out my offering for the pot luck at work.   I'm hoping others like them as well as we do.  I also hope some readers will give them a shot and let me know what they think.

Pumpkin and Chocolate Chip Muffins

yield = approx. 26 muffins

1 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2    cup applesauce
4       eggs
2       cups canned or freshly pureed pumpkin
1/4    cup apple cider
1/4    cup water
3       cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1       teaspoon baking soda
2       teaspoons cinnamon
1       teaspoon ground nutmeg (preferably freshly-ground)
1/2    teaspoon ground cloves
1/2    teaspoon salt
1       cup semisweet dark chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Spray muffin tins with nonstick spray

By hand, mix sugar, applesauce and eggs until smooth.  Add pumpkin, apple cider and water and mix until smooth.  In another bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and salt.   Add dry mixture and chocolate chips to wet mixture and stir to mix, but do not over-stir. 

Fill each cup of the muffin tin 2/3 full with batter.  Bake approx. 20 minutes.

For chocolate chips, I went with a mix of Ghiardelli Bittersweet Baking Chips and Hershey's Special Dark Chips.