Thursday, September 10, 2015

No Recipe? No Problem (really)

This past Saturday was a super-fun day.  My friend Janet, of the blog Chuck Wagoneer, and her daughter, Amelia came over and we experimented in the kitchen.  Next month, we are facilitating an outdoor cooking workshop on cooking with pie irons, sticks and dutch ovens at an annual Girl Scout event.  We realized that none of us had ever actually cooked with a pie iron before and Janet had two spankin' new pie irons that needed to be seasoned before the big event.

We both researched recipes ahead of time and had ideas about what we wanted to cook...then we winged it!  That's right, we didn't follow any recipes, we totally experimented and had a blast!

The thing about recipes is, they are really guidelines and methods more than anything else - come to terms with that and you can make just about anything.  There is something so satisfying about being able to open your fridge, pull out some ingredients and make a meal that is tasty and pleases your family.

I'm ashamed to admit I don't have any pictures, I was too busy acting like a kid in a candy store to stop and take photos.  Tee hee hee.  Janet and Amelia brought pizza dough and their favorite pizza topping for calzones as well as cinnamon rolls (the pre-made refrigerator kind) and berries and I contributed egg roll wrappers, Italian chicken sausage, sauteed mushrooms and smoked gouda for a grilled sandwich, as well as fresh apples from our trees and some gourmet chocolates for dessert experimentation.

We had a lot of success with both the pizza dough and the egg roll wrappers - the pizza dough taking about 6 minutes per side and the egg roll wrappers only taking about 2 minutes per side.  We also tested good ole bread and it also took only about 2 minutes per side.  My favorite of the day was the sausage, mushroom and gouda combo and it was equally tasty as wrapped in pizza dough or egg roll wrapper. It was crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside with a really nice balance of savory flavors from the Italian sausage and the thyme I seasoned the mushrooms with.  YUM!

 I did try filling the egg roll wrapper with the gourmet chocolates (dark chocolate and caramel with sea salt) and marshmallow, but wasn't entirely happy with the results.

The cinnamon rolls were flattened, topped with cream cheese and berries on one, apples, walnuts and brown sugar on the other, then another flattened cinnamon roll was placed on top of that.  They took about 8 minutes per side and I wasn't thrilled with the results.  The apples were nice and tender (I diced them pretty small), but the ratio of bread to filling was just too much.  I'd really like to try making salted caramel apple pie with pizza dough as the wrapper - I'm pretty certain we'd get excellent results.

Bottom line, no recipe, no problem.  Don't be afraid to experiment. Play with your food!  Have some fun and trust your instincts - you might be delightfully surprised.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Summer Favorites 2: Chicken Orzo Salad

Wow, can you believe this summer so far?  Here in the Pacific Northwest, we've been experiencing temperatures that we typically only get in late July or early to mid August.  Weather like this makes Steven & I crave cool, refreshing foods and this is one that keeps well and is also perfect for packing in lunches or taking to summer potlucks.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I shared a post about some of my favorite marinades.  This Chicken Orzo Salad recipe uses the Lemon Pepper Marinade I shared in two ways:  First as the marinade for the chicken and second as the dressing for the finished salad.  I adapted this recipe from the Barefoot Contessa - I've made it with shrimp, like hers, but instead of cucumbers, I like to include grilled or seared zucchini.  I don't remember how she dressed hers, but I like this lemon & olive oil dressing and it's a summer staple for us so it's always on hand.  

To get started, you'll want to put some salted water on to boil for cooking your orzo pasta.  While that's going, I started sauteing the marinaded chicken...

Once the chicken is nicely browned, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool...

While the chicken is working, I put a bit of the dressing in the bottom of a bowl, then started chopping up about half of a large, sweet onion...

...and I threw that right into the bowl with the dressing (you could add garlic if you wanted to as well, I've done that from time to time)...

Prep the zucchini by cutting it in half, lengthwise...

...and drizzle it with olive oil, then season lightly with salt and pepper...

...and either grill it (which we do if we're grilling anything else at the time or throw it in your cast iron skillet, like I did...

Either way, just cook it until it gets nice grill or sear marks on it, and turn it (you want it to stay firm and crisp but have that lovely, grilled char - like this:

Set it aside to cool, then slice it up...

Now grab a nice handful of fresh parsley and chop it...

You can chop it fairly coarse, like I did, or chop it more finely - whatever your personal preference.

Once the orzo pasta is done (you want it al dente) drain it and rinse it to stop the cooking process and also to cool it down.  

Add it to the bowl right on top of the onions and dressing.

Once the chicken and zucchini are cool, add them to the bowl as well along with the chopped parsley - stir to combine (be sure to really get to the bottom of the bowl so everything becomes coated in the dressing.  Add some crumbled feta cheese...

Stir the feta in gently.  Give it a taste, if you need to you can add more dressing.  Chill it in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve it.  YUM!

Chicken Orzo Salad 

1/2 box Orzo Pasta 
2 large chicken breasts, cut into cubes and marinaded 15-20 minutes in Lemon Pepper Marinade
2 zucchini (or to taste) 
1/2 large sweet onion 
8oz Feta cheese, crumbled
1 handful parsley, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 - 1/3 cup Lemon Pepper Marinade to taste (reserve some extra for dressing)

Cook Orzo pasta in salted, boiling water until al dente.  Rinse, drain and set aside.  Meanwhile, saute marinaded chicken in a skillet (I used my cast iron) until nicely browned and cooked through. Remove to a plate to cool.  Slice zucchini lengthwise, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Sear in cast iron skillet, or grill until caramelized but still firm and crisp.  Remove from pan and set aside to cool.  Dice 1/2 of a sweet onion.  Pour approximately 1/4 cup Lemon Pepper Marinade into a medium sized bowl.  Add the diced onion and garlic (if using).  Add the cooled pasta and chicken and the chopped parsley.  Stir well to combine, being sure to coat everything with the marinade.  Top with crumbled feta and stir again gently to mix the cheese in.  Season with salt and pepper or additional marinade/dressing to taste.  This Chicken Orzo Salad is best if chilled about 15 more minutes prior to serving but is also good at room temperature.

Serves 4-6.

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!