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Sunday, June 14, 2015

Summer Favorites Part 1: Marinades Are Your Summer Friend

We've been experiencing some seriously unseasonable warm weather here in the Pacific Northwest. After a milder than mild winter, followed by an exceptionally warm spring we have already experienced temperatures in the high 80's and low 90's - something we don't usually experience until July or August.  It's been amazing, but it doesn't exactly inspire me to turn on the oven.

For Steven and I, once the mercury hits the 80's, we much prefer meals that are cool and fresh.  This doesn't mean I stop cooking altogether (and yes, we do grill too), but it does mean I rely on the stove top more and the oven less and it means I'm going to use Marinades... A lot.  Marinades are handy any time of year, but for me, they are really key to ensuring our chicken and steak are filled with flavor and sure to come out tender and juicy.

I know I've mentioned in previous posts that I like to purchase meats for us in the larger "value pack" sizes.  Summer is no exception to this rule, but since we're going to want meals quick on weeknights I tend to handle those large packages of chicken or steak a bit differently.  Instead of dividing them up and throwing them straight into the freezer, I will throw them in a marinade or coat them in a rub and let them hang out in the fridge. This is especially nice with steaks - the longer the steak marinades, the more tender it seems to come out.  If you find, after a couple of days, that you're not going to cook them after all, you can store them in the freezer at that point.  When I cook the marinaded protein, I go ahead and cook it all, even if we only need half of it for that  night's dinner - that way I already have pre-cooked and chilled protein to throw into a salad, onto a sandwich or nachos the next night.

I have a couple go to, storebought seasoning blends I really like.  You're probably already familiar with this one:

It's really great mixed right into ground beef for burgers.  Of course, it 's great for steak, but it's also good on chicken and pork.  

I may have shared this one in the past:

My neighbor turned me on to this one - she uses it in her white chicken chili and now I do too, but it's also great on fish, steak, pork and of course, grilled chicken.  It's the most-used store-bought blend I own.  It's a bit difficult to get ahold of here where I live.  We can only get it at Costco and it's only offered seasonally, so I usually try to pick up several containers of it the moment it becomes available.  One of these days, I'll make my own scratch version and then I can use it to my heart's content!  

A couple other things I couldn't live without in my kitchen, particularly in the summer is a good supply of citrus fruits (I try to keep lemons and limes on-hand year-round, actually), some tasty extra virgin olive oil... 

My juicer and microplane (for zesting)...

...and a supply of self-sealing plastic bags.

So, without further ado, here's a couple marinades I used today.  I made up some Lemon Pepper marinade for a Chicken Orzo salad I planned for tonight's dinner and I used some Mojito Lime Marinade for cooking tomorrow or later in the week.

Zest a lemon right into a zip close bag (I like to fold the top of the bag down and place it inside a bowl for a bit of stability).  Then add some freshly cracked pepper.  My pepper grinder is broken so I used my spice grinder for this process.

I used about a tablespoon of peppercorns, but you can adjust it to your preference.

I added about half of the ground pepper to the bag, then poured in some extra virgin olive oil.  Then set it aside and got to work on marinade number 2.

For the Mojito Lime marinade, I put about 2 tablespoons of the Mojito Lime seasoning mix into the self-sealing plastic bag and added about 2 tablespoons of evoo.  Again, I set this aside and went to work on prepping the chicken.  I took these four lovely boneless, skinless chicken breasts...

..and cut 2 of them into cubes...

...and the other two into tender-sized strips.

The cubes are for the orzo salad, so they went into the bag with the lemon-pepper mixture.  Then I sealed the bag, letting all of the air out, and squished it all around...

...until it was fully coated and looked like this:

The tenders went into the bag with the Mojito Lime mixture...

...and I repeated the whole process.

Then both bags went into the fridge.

A note about using citrus, you may have noticed I didn't add the juice of the lemon to the marinade...yet.  That's because you don't want the acid in the citrus to cook your protein so citrus should only be added shortly before cooking - no longer than 15-20 minutes for chicken in fairly thick pieces, less for stir fry strips and much less for shrimp or seafood of any kind.  In this case, the juice is going into the dressing for the orzo salad, which is really a marinade too, so I'll just pour some of the dressing in with the chicken a bit before cooking to be certain it gets maximum infusion from the lemon.  

Speaking of the dressing, here's how to make it:

Juice one lemon into a bowl or mason jar (I love using mason jars for this whole process)...

You'll be using equal parts lemon juice and equal parts evoo.  So here's the lemon juice...  

...and now I've added the extra virgin olive oil...

Now add some salt & pepper to taste - this will really depend on how much dressing/marinade you mix up but I used about 1/2 teaspoon of pepper and a healthy pinch of salt.

Place the lid on the jar and shake it up!

Voila!  Dressing/Marinade - however you want to use it, it's ready to go.  And the best part?  It doesn't even need to be refrigerated!  Really, the acid in the lemon juice acts as a preservative and the olive oil won't spoil (at least not for a very, very long time, if ever), so you can leave it out on the counter, if you like.  If you do choose to refrigerate it, keep in mind that the olive oil will solidify, so you'll need to either set it out at room temperature for about 30 minutes prior to use or nuke it for about 15 seconds.

Ok, so there you have it, two quick and easy marinades that a fresh and full of summer flavor to use in your recipes this summer.  I promise to post the Chicken Orzo Salad in the near future as well as some other recipes using these marinades so you can get your summer on!

Lemon Pepper Marinade

Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
1 TBLS ground pepper
1/4 C Extra Virgin Olive Oil (or equal quantity to lemon juice)

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl or mason jar.  Whisk or shake to mix until emulsified.  For chicken, steak or pork, marinade for about 20 minutes prior to cooking or omit lemon juice and marinade up to 24 hours, adding lemon juice 20 minutes prior to cooking.  This marinade is an excellent salad dressing too - our favorite for Orzo Salad with Chicken or Shrimp, Greek Salad and Antipasto Salad.

Mojito Lime Marinade

2 TBLS Mojito Lime Seasoning Mix
2 - 3 TBLS Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Place all ingredients in a self-sealing bag or bowl, add chicken, steak or pork, toss to coat and allow to marinade a minimum of 20 minutes or up to 24 hours.  If using for shellfish add fresh citrus juice of your choice and marinade just 5-10 minutes.  For larger cuts of fish, add fresh citrus juice and marinade for 15-20 minutes.  Cook as desired.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Crowd Pleasing Carnitas

Hola!  Wow, it has been such a long time since I shared anything with you – longer than I even realized.  Like a lot of you I have a lot of balls to juggle – I have a full-time, traditional job plus a home-based online retail business on top of all the usual friends, family, pets, etc.  Recently, my interest in Tabletop Role Playing Games has been re-ignited - it’s become an obsession, really, and has consumed even more of my already dwindling free time.  Along with playing RPG’s, however, also comes tasty food.  There is something about playing that just fuels the appetite and my gaming group and I have been eating well, indeed.  One of my fellow players is also a fellow food blogger and I think really has us both raising the stakes in food preparation for our game days which brings us to the lovely Pork Carnitas recipe I made just last Saturday for my gaming group.  The recipe was easy to prepare and the pork was absolutely fall-apart tender and juicy as well as flavorful. 

I found  this recipe for Pork Carnitas and made only a few changes – mostly in cooking method (after all, this is ME we are talking about).  One of my gaming companions is a bigger wimp than I am when it comes to hot spices so I left out the jalapenos.  In the future, if I leave these out, I will substitute for green chilies instead, just to add another layer of flavor. 

To start with, I picked up a 5 pound pork shoulder from the local butcher shop and had them cut it into 2 inch cubes.  Prior to preparing the pork for cooking, I let it sit out about 20 minutes at room temperature.  While my cast iron skillet was preheating I seasoned the pork cubes with salt & pepper (do not skimp on this step!).  In a large bowl, I mixed together the oregano, cumin and olive oil, then I tossed the seasoned pork in the mixture and made sure it was all well-coated.  I seared the pork in small batches, being sure that the largest surfaces were nicely browned before removing them from the skillet.  I placed them right in the crock of my slow cooker and just kept searing in small batches until it was all browned.  Next, I put the onions, garlic and juice from one of the oranges in the still-hot skillet and just cooked them until softened and until all the nice, browned bits came loose from the pan, then I poured it all on top of the seared pork.  To this mixture, I added the juice of the last orange, placed the lid on the crock, put the crock back into the slow cooker base and turned it on low and pretty much left it to itself for the rest of the day. 

I cooked for about 7 or 8 hours before we got around to having dinner and the pork absolutely fell apart with very little effort on our part.  I served it up with rice seasoned with cumin and fresh lime juice, black beans, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, sour cream, hot sauce and flour tortillas.   This gave everyone plenty of options to choose how they wanted to prepare theirs – as a soft taco, a salad or a rice bowl.  This dish received plenty of oohs, ah’s and kudos and I definitely recommend giving it a try.   Unfortunately, we were so hungry by then that I forgot to take pictures of the finished product.  It’s great for casual entertaining or for your upcoming Cinco de Mayo fiesta. 

Until next time – hasta luego!

4-5 lb Pork Shoulder, boneless, cut into 2 inch cubes
1 onion, coarsely chopped
1 jalapeno, seeded and ribs removed, chopped
1 1/4 tbls salt
1 tsp black pepper
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 oranges, juice only
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp EVOO

Set pork out at room temperature for at least 20 minutes. 

Preheat skillet at medium high heat.  Season cubed pork with the salt and pepper.  In a large bowl (or zip-close bag) combine oregano, cumin and EVOO.  Add pork and toss to coat.  Place cubes of pork in pre-heated skillet in small batches (so they are not touching each other) and cook until seared on all sides.  Remove from skillet and place in crock pot or dutch oven.  Repeat steps until all the pork is browned.  Add onion and garlic to skillet, stirring to loosen the browned bits from the bottom of the skillet, add the juice of one of the oranges.  Cook just until the onions and garlic soften a bit and the juice reduces slightly.  Pour over the contents of the crock pot. Squeeze the juice of the remaining orange over the pork mixture. 

Put the lid on the crock pot and turn on to low heat.  Allow Carnitas to cook for 8-10 hours, stirring occasionally. 

When you're ready to serve, remove pork from the crock pot using a slotted spoon.  Use a couple forks to shred the pork (it won't take much effort).  Skim the fat from the juices, discarding the fat.  At this point, you can reduce it, if you'd like.  Pour it over the shredded pork and serve with your favorite taco toppings or burrito fillings and/or rice and beans.  Delicioso!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Dinner 2013

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Happy Holidays whatever your traditions are at this time of year!

We're hosting Christmas Dinner with my side of the family this year.  This means my parents, my sister and her significant other, his mom, her two kids and their spouses. 

I decided I wanted to try something I love but have never made myself before - a Leg of Lamb!  My parents don't care for lamb though, so we're also having ham.  Of course, we'll have appetizers, cookies and wine before dinner with plenty of conversation and family time.  We'll round out our meal with roasted potatoes, salad, cranberry sauce and finish with Poached Pears for dessert.

I have been busily mining Pinterest for recipes for the lamb and pears, here's the results:

We're having this lamb, ham, roasted potatoes which I simply toss in extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, fresh rosemary and plenty of whole cloves of garlic and roast at about 450 degrees until they are crisp on the outside and tender on the inside.  I've also decided to make these green beans, which not only pretty but sound delicious too. My sister is bringing the salad for which, I suspect, she'll whip up a fresh vinaigrette.  We're having Mulled Wine Sangria - a recipe from The Chew's Clinton Kelly - which I can hardly wait to try.   Finally I found this recipe for Poached Pears which we'll have for dessert - I think it sounds delightful and it shouldn't pose any problems for the many food issues our family members have these days. 

What are your plans for the holiday?

Friday, December 20, 2013

My Cheerios Breakfast/Snack Mix

My Cheerios Breakfast/Snack Mix 

When I first started my present job, I had a tough time adjusting to a full, 8 hour work day… or rather, my stomach did.  I had only worked a 6 hour day in my previous place of employment and would get home early enough to have dinner on the table by 5 or 5:30pm.  But now, I wasn't even leaving the office until 5pm and my stomach would grumble all the way home.  So, I did the logical thing and started packing an afternoon snack that I either ate at my desk in the late afternoon or in the car on the way home.  I started experimenting with cereal, but found it didn’t stick with me long enough, so I added nuts, but it was still missing something so I started adding dried fruit.  My favorite combination was Cheerios with walnuts and dried cranberries.  Eventually, I decided the combination was a bit dry and needed some salt too, so I started baking it in a bit of oil – this not only allowed the salt to stick – somewhat – but it also made the cereal and nuts toastier and crunchier – yummy! 
Well, I’ve been playing with this combination and tweaking it for almost a year now and I’ve finally arrived at the absolute perfect version of this tasty, crunchy and satisfying snack.  Somewhere along the way, I switched to eating it for breakfast and now I eat it for breakfast almost every day of the week – plus I find myself snacking on it in the evening when I’m watching TV or reading a book (it’s a lot less noisy than the popcorn popper) or as an afternoon snack at my desk if I don't eat it all in the morning. 
I start by setting the oven to 300 degrees and putting some butter and oil in a cast iron skillet or large roasting pan... I especially love the way this comes out when I bake it in a cast iron skillet, but I more often use a roasting pan since I generally make huge batches (which I do, pretty much once a week, then I find out I've eaten it up too quickly and have to make a small batch to get through the rest of the work week - tee hee)... 
... and I put it in the oven while the oven is preheating, so the butter melts and gets all bubbly and sizzly.
Now I add the Cheerios and Walnuts and stir it around so it all gets well-coated in the butter and oil...
I sprinkle in some salt at this point too, not a lot, I'll add more when it's done.  Then I bake it for 15 minutes until the walnuts and cereal are nicely toasted.  Let it cool just a bit, then add the dried cranberries.
And sprinkle on some salt...
It's very tasty while still warm - in fact, it would be a nice snack to serve warm to guests or to enjoy on a quiet snow day watching movies or curled up with a good book.  If you don't end up eating it all immediately, let it cool completely before storing in air-tight containers. 

Here’s the recipe for my final version, but feel free to play with it yourself – I’d love to hear what you come up with:

My Cheerios Breakfast/Snack Mix
2 tbls butter (regular, SALTED butter)
¼ cup cooking oil
6 cups Cheerios cereal
1 cup walnuts
1 cup dried cranberries (or dried fruit of your choice)
Salt to taste

Place butter and oil in a large cast iron skillet or roasting pan.  Place in oven and set oven to 300 degrees.  Remove pan from oven when oven comes to temperature.  Pour in Cheerios and walnuts.  Stir to coat.  Sprinkle liberally with salt and stir again.  Bake in oven for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow toasted mixture to cool.  Add dried cranberries and sprinkle with a bit more salt.  Stir in.  Store in air-tight containers or zip-close bags.
Note:  If you want to make a small batch, the loose ratio I follow is 1/4 cup dried cranberries and 1/2 cup walnuts for every 2 cups of cereal.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Creamy Mushroom and Pesto Pasta with Spinach

Do you ever have those nights when all you want is to plunk down in front of the TV (in your pjs or yoga pants and night shirt) with a bowl of tasty, comforting pasta and your favorite program or movie?  Confession:  I've been having a lot of these nights lately.  There's something about starting a new job, no matter how much you like it, no matter how great your coworkers are, and no matter how capable you are of completing the tasks of said new position that is stressful and exhausting.  Now double that by purchasing a business and doing both at the same time.

Hence, this pasta:

My husband and I liked this pasta so much, I made it twice in the same week!  It's earthy, creamy, hearty and extremely tasty.  It's great for a Meatless Monday meal, or if you're just a huge fan of mushrooms (like me).

Put some salted water on to boil for your pasta.  Then slice up some mushrooms,


Spinach (try to get baby spinach, if the leaves are small enough, you won't even need to chop them)...

And Parsley.  With any luck, your water is boiling and you can drop your pasta now.  If not, wait until you drop the pasta to heat up your skillet and start sauteeing.  Once you have dropped your pasta:

Throw the mushrooms in a skillet and sautee them for a couple of minutes...

Next, add the scallions to the skillet...

Saute these together for just a couple of minutes, when the mushrooms start to carmelize, season the whole shebang with a bit of salt and pepper, then add the spinach...

Sprinkle just a bit more salt on the spinach, then just let it hang out.  When it starts to wilt, give it a stir.

Once the spinach has cooked down a bit, add 4 oz. of Neufchatel Cheese (or other low-fat cream cheese) and half of a 7 oz. container of pesto.

Let everything hang out for a couple minutes to give the cheese a chance to melt a bit, then stir it all together. Your pasta should be ready now.  You can either drain it, first reserving about a cup of the pasta water or you can use a spider to transfer the pasta directly to the skillet (I love my spider for this!).

Add pasta water as needed to make a sauce, stir everything together and let it cook together for just a couple minutes.

Add some chopped fresh parsley and serve!

The best part of this dish, is it only takes as long to make as it takes to boil the water and cook the pasta.  YUM!

Creamy Mushroom & Pesto Pasta with Spinach

1 lb Bow Tie Pasta
4 oz. Nuefchatel Cheese (or low-fat cream cheese)
3.5 oz. Pesto (I like the kind you get in the fresh pasta aisle)
4-6 Mushrooms, sliced
3-5 Scallions, chopped
2 cups Spinach, chopped
2 Tbls Fresh Parsley, chopped
Salt & Pepper, to taste
2 TBLS Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1/4-1/2 cup Pasta Water

Put a large pot of salted water on  to boil.  Cook pasta to just shy of al-dente.

Preheat olive oil in a skillet.  Add mushroom, saute a couple minutes, then add scallions and sprinkle with salt.  Once mushrooms start to carmelize, add spinach, sprinkling a little salt on the spinach.  Let the spinach sit in the pan and steam with the mushroom and scallions, until it starts to wilt, then stir it in.  Sautee about 2 minutes, then add cream cheese and pesto.  Once cheese starts to melt, stir it in with the vegetables.  Add the pasta and approximately 1/4 cup pasta water.  Stir everything together and let it all cook together about 2 minutes, add more pasta water, as needed to make a creamy sauce.  Sprinkle with fresh, chopped parsley and serve hot with crusty bread.