Friday, March 30, 2012

Pan-Seared Strip Steak with Cowboy Steak Sauce and Spicy Potato Wedges

Fridays are usually my busiest day of the week. That's the day I run all my errands. Typically I give myself a pass to not post anything on Friday. But this week I felt in a bit of a panic to get a post up. This afternoon was the official kickoff for Spring Break for my boys and starting tomorrow afternoon my husband will be on vacation for the next week. Yay! This is rare in our house, to all get time off together. So it was a major stock-up day at the grocery store, buying up everything I could to keep my three guys satisfied all week long. It isn't until I need to do one of those shopping trips that I realize how much they eat outside of the house. I must have bought at least twice the amount I usually do in a week.

Anyway I felt like I better post while there was inspiration to because I know next week could get busy. And in the spirit of having all three of my men around me I thought I'd kick-off vacation week with some guy-friendly food.

Pan-Seared Strip Steak with Cowboy Steak Sauce and Spicy Potato Wedges
~serves 4~

For the Cowboy Steak Sauce:
1/2 c. strong coffee
1/3 c. raisins
2 T. barbecue sauce
2 T. ketchup
3 T. worcestershire sauce
2 T. vinegar
1 T. dijon mustard
1 chipotle chile in adobo sauce, minced (2-3 t.)
For the Spicy Potato Wedges:
1 t. smoked paprika
1 t. garlic powder
3/4 t. cumin
1/4 t. cayenne pepper
3/4 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1/4 c. canola oil
2 lb. russet potatoes (3-4 large), each cut into 8 wedges
1. T chopped fresh parley
For the Steak:
4 1/2-inch thick strip steaks 
salt and pepper
2 t. canola oil

1. Make the steak sauce. In a medium bowl, add coffee and raisins. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave until it comes to a boil, 1-3 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, letting the raisins soften. In a blender combine remaining ingredients for steak sauce and blend until smooth. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for about a week or can be frozen for about a month. Makes about 1 cup.

2. Prepare the potatoes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl combine smoked paprika, garlic powder, cumin, cayenne, salt and pepper. Add in canola oil and blend until smooth. Add potatoes and toss until thoroughly combined. Spread in an even layer onto a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake 1 hour, flipping the potatoes halfway through baking time. Sprinkle with chopped parsley to finish.

3.Make the steaks. Pat steaks dry and season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add the steaks and cook without moving about 3 minutes per side or until steaks reach desired doneness. You may need to cook the steaks in 2 batches if your skillet isn't beg enough to fit the steaks without touching each other. Remove steaks to a platter and tent loosely with foil and let rest for 5 minutes before serving. Serve steaks with sauce and potato wedges.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Salmon with Creamy Cucumber Sauce

A few years back during a trip to the Oregon coast with my mom and my kids, we all went out for a seafood dinner overlooking the beautiful Pacific Ocean where I had, to date, the best salmon dish I have ever ordered in a restaurant. It was perfectly pan-seared, topped with a light, cool & creamy, just ever so slightly tangy sauce with very thinly sliced cucumbers garnishing throughout.  Ever since that dinner, I have always wanted to re-create that dish. And here's what I came up with.

 For the sauce, I used a base of sour cream to which I judiciously added lemon juice, fresh chopped dill and whole grain mustard, then to finish I folded in very thinly sliced cucumber. I love the flavor of cucumber and salmon together, the two have similar flavor profiles that play very well off each other. The creamy sauce, paired with the crust of the pan seared salmon is a match made in heaven.

Salmon with Creamy Cucumber Sauces
~serves 4~

1/2 c. sour cream
1 T. fresh lemon juice
1 t. whole grain mustard
1 t. minced fresh dill
1/3 cup quartered & very thinly sliced english cucumber
salt & pepper
2 t. canola oil
4 skin on salmon portions
lemon wedges, for serving

1. Make the sauce - In a small bowl combine sour cream, lemon juice, mustard, dill and cucumber. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside while searing the salmon.

2. Sear the salmon - Pat salmon dry with paper towel and season with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a 12 inch nonstick skillet over medium-high - high heat until the oil begins to smoke. Add the salmon to the pan, presentation side down. Sear on each side. (If your salmon is less than an inch thick allow about 2 1/2 minutes per side, if they are on the thinker side 3 - 3 1/2 minutes per side.)

3. Serve the salmon topped with the sauce and lemon wedges.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Rhubarb Clafoutis

Rhubarb is one of my favorite springtime offerings. I love the beautiful pink hues that definitely encapsulate the feelings of the season. And I love it's sweet tart flavor. I picked up some rhubarb at my local grocery store this week and I wanted to try something with it I'd never done before.

I decided to make a French clafoutis, which is essentially a pancake batter poured over fruit and then baked in the oven. I sliced the rhubarb into about 1/2 inch slices and tossed them in a couple of tablespoons of sugar to macerate. This is an important step because rhubarb contains a lot of water and tossing it with the sugar helps to draw out some of the excess moisture. Plus it sweetens it up a bit. Then I drained the rhubarb in a colander before adding it to the recipe.

This recipe is such a snap to make, it literally took me 5 minutes to throw the batter together. It bakes and puffs in the oven. The center becomes just set, like a custard, surrounding tart and sweet little gems of tender rhubarb. Delish!

I had it for dinner tonight & I'll probably have it for breakfast in the morning too. (Bad, I know it.) It would be heavenly served hot with a tiny scoop of vanilla bean ice cream.

Rhubarb Clafoutis
~serves 8~

1 lb. rhubarb, sliced into approximate 1/2 inch pieces
5 T. unsalted butter, 4 T. melted, 1 T. used for buttering the baking dish
2/3 c. sugar, plus 2 T. sugar, for tossing with the rhubarb
3 eggs
3/4 c. flour
1 c. milk
pinch of salt
2 t. vanilla extract
confectioner's sugar (for dusting the top)

1. Toss the rhubarb with the 2 T. sugar in a medium bowl and set aside. It's good if you can let this sit for at least an hour.

2. In a separate large bowl whisk the eggs and sugar together until combined. Add the flour and half the milk, whisk until smooth. Add the remaining milk, the salt, vanilla and melted butter. Stirring gently until just combined. Let the batter rest at room temperature for about an hour. (You can skip this step if you are in a rush, it just makes the dough a little more tender.)

3. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Use remaining 1 T. butter to grease a 10 inch pan, (I use a cast iron skillet here, but you could use a ceramic dish, a cake pan, or a 8x8 inch Pyrex baking dish). Drain the rhubarb well in a colander and spread evenly in the prepared pan and then pour the batter evenly over the top. Place the pan on a baking sheet (in case it overflows) and bake for 1 hour. Let cool slightly before serving. Dust the top with confectioner's sugar before serving.

Recipe source: Adapted from, Glorious French Food by James Peterson

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Shrimp and Orzo Casserole

Springtime in the pacific Northwest can be pretty unpredictable. This year that is definitely no exception.

 Case in point:

 Today it was gloriously sunny, warm enough for sandals, bright enough for sunglasses. Just an all around ideal day. Took the dog for a walk with my son this afternoon, beautiful.

Two days ago we got a freak snow storm that put 2 inches on the ground and caused a 2-hour school delay.

Schizophrenic weather. Oh well, keeps things interesting I guess. And keeps my beautiful Northwest lush and green.

This dish to me is the quintessential springtime casserole. It is warm and comforting enough for the colder days of spring (or when you get a freak snowstorm in the middle of your sunnier days), but the flavors are light and bright, especially suited for springtime. So it's good to go no matter what surprises the weather holds.

Shrimp and Orzo Casserole
~serves 8~

I like to serve this dish with a super simple salad of baby spinach tossed with a little red wine vinegar or lemon juice and extra-virgin olive oil.

1 1/2 lb. large shrimp (31-40), peeled, deveined, tails removed
salt and pepper
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion chopped fine
1 fennel bulb cored, chopped fine plus 2 tablespoons of the feathery fronds chopped (for garnish)
6 garlic cloves minced
3/4 t. crushed red pepper flakes
1 lb. orzo
3/4 c. white wine
2 c. low-sodium chicken broth
2 1/2 c water
28 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
4 t. chopped fresh oregano (1 t. dried oregano can be substituted)
8 oz. feta cheese coarsely crumbled
2 T. chopped fresh parsley, divided
1 lemon, cut into wedges

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Pat shrimp dry and season well with salt and pepper. Heat oil in a large dutch oven over medium-high until oil shimmers. Add onion, fennel and 1/2 t. salt. Cook, stirring frequently until vegetables are tender and just browning about 10 minutes. Add garlic and pepper flakes, cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. 

2. Add orzo, cook, stirring constantly until orzo is coated with oil and starts to become toasty and browned, about 4 minutes. Add white wine, cook until liquid evaporates, about a minute. Add broth, water and 1/4 t. salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until orzo is mostly tender, about 12 minutes, adjusting the heat as necessary to keep at a lively simmer and stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Stir in tomatoes, shrimp, oregano and 1 T. parsley.

3. Pour into a 13x9 inch baking dish. Sprinkle with the feta cheese and bake about 20 minutes, until the shrimp turn pink and the cheese is lightly browned. Before serving, sprinkle with chopped fennel fronds and remaining parsley. Serve with lemon wedges.

Recipe adapted from Cover & Bake

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Corned Beef and Cabbage Twice-Baked Potatoes

I LOVE it when I can make a dinner work double-duty for me. Admittedly it doesn't happen all that often in my house though. With a meat-and-potatoes husband and 2 growing boys under my roof, leftovers tend to go go quick around here. I made corned beef and cabbage over St. Paddy's day weekend and knew ahead of time I wanted to make these twice-baked potatoes with some of the leftovers. So I had to move with a quickness and call out dibs on the leftovers before anyone else could get their hands on them.

My inspiration for these potatoes came in part from the Irish dish colcannon, which is basically mashed potatoes with cabbage, a little ham or bacon and often times an obscene amount of butter. (Yum!) And who doesn't love twice-baked potatoes? Marry those two dishes together along with super flavorful and tender chunks of corned-beef, the results were delicious!

Corned Beef and Cabbage Twice-Baked Potatoes
~serves 4 as a main dish, 8 as a side dish~

4 large russet potatoes, 8-10 oz. each, scrubbed clean
oil for rubbing on potatoes
2 T. unsalted butter, melted
1/2 t. salt 
1/4 t pepper 
1/2 c. sour cream
2 T. milk
1 T. whole-grain mustard

1 1/4 c. rough chopped corned beef
2 c. leftover cooked cabbage
2 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese

1. Adjust oven rack to the middle position. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Place potatoes on a large rimmed baking sheet lined with foil. Rub each potato lightly with oil. Bake the potatoes until completely tender, about an hour. Remove potatoes from the oven but don't turn the oven off. Let the potatoes cool for 10 minutes.

2. Halve each potato lengthwise and scoop out the potato flesh into a large bowl using a soup spoon, being careful to leave about a 3/8 inch layer of potato flesh in the skin (this keeps the potato skin stable). Return the hollowed-out potato skins to the oven to dry out and crisp up slightly, about 10 min. Remove from the oven and set aside.

3. Mash the potato flesh until mostly smooth using a fork or a potato masher. Add the melted butter, salt and pepper, mix to combine. Add the sour cream, milk and mustard, mix to combine again. Add the corned beef, cabbage and 1 c. of the cheese, mix thoroughly.

4. Mound the filing into the potato skins on the baking sheet. Sprinkle with the remaining cup of cheese. Return to the 400 degree oven, bake 10 min. Keeping the oven rack in the middle position, turn on the broiler and broil until the cheese turns spotty brown, 3-5minutes. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Guinness-Caramelized Onions

I was trying to think of something interesting to go with my loaf of  Irish Soda Bread and of coarse Guinness came to mind with it being a St. Paddy's day recipe and all. So I thought why not caramelized onions using Guinness. I have seen a few recipes like this throughout the blogosphere lately and I was inspired to try my hand, and it turned out great. While I was making this I kept thinking, "note to self, I need to come up with a french onion-style 'Irish Onion Soup' from this". How good would that be?

Here's the tasty bite I made using my Irish Soda Bread and these Guinness-Caramelized Onions.

Take a slice of Irish Soda Bread, slather with a generous amount of whole-grain mustard & some of the Guinness-Caramelized Onions, then top the whole thing off with some tasty sharp cheddar (I used Kerrygold Irish Cheddar here). Yum!

Guinness-Caramelized Onions
~makes about 2 1/4 cups~

3 lb. yellow onions, halved, sliced thin
4 T. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 t. salt
1 c. Guinness beer
1 t. dark brown sugar
1 t. fresh thyme leaves

1. Melt butter in a large dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onions and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, adjusting heat as necessary. 

2. After about 20 minutes, when onions are beginning to break down and become sticky, add 1/2 c. Guinness. Continue to cook until the beer is completely evaporated, about another 20 minutes, continuing to stir frequently. 

3. Repeat the last step with the remaining 1/2 c. Guinness along with the brown sugar and thyme, cooking until the liquid is evaporated and the onions turn dark brown and jammy. Onions should take a total of 50-55 minutes start to finish.

Classic Irish Soda Bread

I am a sucker for the food holidays. Gimme any reason to celebrate with good food and I am there! So anyhow that being said I couldn't resist the temptation whip up a quick loaf of Irish soda bread in the spirit of upcoming St. Paddy's day. This bread is incredibly easy to put together, like 5 minutes quick. The leftovers make pretty yummy toast too. Enjoy!

Classic Irish Soda Bread
~makes 1 loaf~

Recipe Source: Baking Illustrated

3 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 c. cake flour
2 T. sugar
1 1/2 t. baking soda
1 1/2 t. cream of tartar
1 1/2 t. salt
2 T. unsalted butter, softened, plus 1 T. melted butter for brushing on the crust
1 1/2 c. buttermilk

1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together  flours, sugar, baking soda, cream of tartar, and salt. Using your fingers work the softened butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles coarse crumbs. 

2. Add the buttermilk and mix with a fork until the dough begins to come together. Turn the dough out on a floured counter and knead 12-14 times, just until dough is cohesive and lumpy. (Don't over knead, or the soda bread will be tough.)

3. Shape the dough in to a round about 6 inches in diameter and 2 inches high. Place on a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Using a large serrated knife score a large X on the loaf, 5 inches long and 3/4 inch deep.

4. Bake until golden brown and a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, 40-45 minutes. Remove from the oven and brush with the melted butter. Cool to room temperature before serving.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Skillet Glazed Parsnips, Carrots and Pearl Onions

Skillet Glazed Parsnips, Carrots and Pearl Onions
~serves 4~

1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
1 1/2 lb. mix of parsnips and carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 - 3/4 inch pieces
6 oz. frozen pearl onions (do not thaw)
1/2 c. low-sodium chicken broth
1 T.sugar
1 t. fresh thyme leaves
1/2 t. salt
1/8 t. pepper

Melt butter in a 12 inch nonstick skillet over medium high heat. When the foam subsides add parsnips and carrots in a single layer and cook undisturbed 4 minutes (vegetables should be beginning to brown, if not cook until they brown). Add pearl onions, cook 2 minutes, stir, cook 2 more minutes (everything should be well browned at this point). Add remaining ingredients, reduce heat to medium low, cover skillet. Simmer until tender about 6 minutes. Remove lid, increase heat to high and simmer, stirring frequently until the cooking liquid reduces to a glaze, about 1 minute. Serve.

Guinness-Braised Short Ribs

This year for St. Paddy's day I was pretty certain I wanted to make Guinness Stew. But then I got to thinking, since this is my first official food holiday since starting my blog a couple weeks ago, I should do something a little more special. So I became inspired to rework a rustic Guinness Stew into a more refined Guiness-Braised Short Ribs.

I love short ribs. They have so much potential for deliciousness. Braised in a flavorful liquid, the meat becomes unctuous and fork-tender and the bones and fat impart a lovely richness to the sauce. The main pitfall to watch out for when cooking short ribs is avoiding a ultra greasy sauce. I combat this in a couple of ways. First I prebake the short-ribs for about an hour in a super hot oven. This renders a lot of initial fat (I ended up with a good half cup), and at the same time browns the short ribs up nicely, developing great flavor. The other step, which in my opinion is a crucial one, I let the braising liquid fully cool overnight in the refrigerator before serving. The excess fat solidifies and you can easily remove it the next day before reheating. And if you are at all familiar with what happens to soup and stew after they hang around for a day or two, often times they taste better as they sit & this is certainly the case here.

I also decided, in the spirit of my refined St. Paddy's day feast, instead of stewing all my veggies together in the braising liquid, I'd make a separate side dish of glazed parsnips, carrots and pearl onions. I hope you enjoy these recipes. We certainly did.

Guinness-Braised Short Ribs
~serves 6~

Serve this dish over mashed potatoes along with Glazed Parsnips, Carrots and Pearl Onions (recipe follows).

5 lb. beef short ribs
3 med. onions, chopped
2 med. carrots, chopped
2 T. flour
1 1/2 c. Guinness beer
4 c. low-sodium chicken broth
1 oz. bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 T. minced fresh thyme
1 T. light brown sugar
2 bay leaves
2 T. apple cider vinegar
salt & pepper
freshly minced parsley

1. Adjust oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Place ribs, bone-side down in a large roasting pan. Season well with salt and pepper. Roast for 45 minutes, drain off fat, ( a bulb tukey baster works well) reserving 2 tablespoons. Continue to roast 15 more minutes, 1 hour total. Lower oven temperature to 300 degrees.

2. Remove ribs to a large plate, set aside. Immediately add the Guinness to the roasting pan. Using a wooden spoon, scrape up all the drippings left in the pan from the roasted ribs. Set the roasting pan with the beer aside.

3.Heat the reserved 2 tablespoons beef drippings in a large, oven proof dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add onions and carrots, saute, stirring occasionally until vegetables soften, about 12 minutes. Stir flour into vegetables, cook 1 minute, stirring constantly. Add beer from the roasting pan, chicken broth, chocolate, thyme, brown sugar, bay leaves and cider vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil. Add the ribs and return to a boil. Cover the pot and place it in the oven to simmer for 2 hours (ribs should be tender and starting to fall off the bone).

4. Transfer the ribs to a large plate. Strain the braising liquid through a fine mesh strainer, into a large bowl, pressing on the cooked vegetables to extract as much liquid as possible. Cover ribs and liquid with plastic wrap and refrigerate over night. (Ribs can be made up to 3 days in advance.)

5. When ready to serve, spoon off the solidified fat from the braising liquid. Pour into the dutch oven. Bring to a simmer over medium heat adjusting the seasoning to taste. Add the ribs to the simmering sauce to reheat   (this should take 10-15 minutes). Serve the sauce over the ribs, garnishing with parsley.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Broiled Chicken Thighs and Asparagus with Lemon and Garlic

This recipe is dear to my heart. I can't take any credit for it though. It comes from one of my all-time favorite cookbooks called, The Quick Recipe. I discovered it almost a decade ago, I was still fairly new to married life & I was all about learning how to cook exceptional food. For me this was one of those milestone recipes that really made me feel like I could cook. Every time I make it now, I get that nostalgic feeling I got the first time I made it when it smelled so good in my kitchen it made me think "it smells like a restaurant in here!". It's really, really good.

Broiled Chicken Thighs and Asparagus with Lemon and Garlic
~serves 4~

For the Garlic-Thyme oil:
4 cloves of garlic, minced with a garlic press or grated using a microplane grater
1 t. minced fresh thyme
1/4 c. extra virgin olive oil
3/4 t. salt
1/4 t. pepper
For the Chicken:
8 bone-in skin-on chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat
2 lemons, 1 trimmed and cut into 1/4 inch thick rounds, the other cut into wedges
2 lbs. asparagus, tough ends snapped off
nonstick spray
salt & pepper

1. In a small bowl mix together, garlic, thyme, olive oil, salt & pepper. Remove 1 1/2 T. of oil mixture into a separate bowl, set aside.

2. Adjust oven racks to lower-middle position (about 13 inches below heating element), and upper-middle position (about 5 inches from the heating element). Heat the broiler. Using a slotted broiler pan, lightly coat the top with nonstick spray.

3. Using a sharp knife, make 3 diagonal slashes through the skin of each chicken thigh. (This is done to help excess fat drain from the thighs and facilitate better browning.) Season with salt & pepper, place skin-side down on broiler pan rack. Place a lemon slice on top of each thigh.

4. Broil chicken on the bottom rack until just beginning to brown, 12-16 minutes. Using tongs flip the chicken skin-side up so it rests on the lemon slice. Continue to broil on the bottom rack until the skin is slightly crisp and meat registers 160 degrees in the thickest part, about 15 minutes. Brush chicken with the garlic-oil mixture, move to upper rack and broil until the chicken is crisp and dark brown in spots, 1-2 minutes. (Watch carefully that the chicken doesn't burn.) Transfer chicken and lemon slices to a serving platter.

5. Remove the broiler pan top, (careful, it's hot) pour off all but 1 t. chicken fat from the broiler pan bottom. Add asparagus. Broil, shaking the pan once or twice to turn the asparagus spears, until tender and lightly browned, 7-10 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and while the asparagus is still in the pan, toss with the reserved 1 1/2 T. garlic oil mixture. Serve with the chicken, broiled lemon slices and lemon wedges.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Orange "Brownies" with Orange-Rosemary Glaze

It has been a dreary rainy Monday morning. Not at all a rare thing to see here in the Pacific Northwest. And myself being a born-and-raised Northwest girl, this weather doesn't get me down in the least. For me it means warm and cozy, in my house, no TV or radio, just the peaceful sound of the rain falling outside. I love rainy days, always have, always will.

Another thing I love contrary to most everybody else is Mondays. In my house there resides 2 growing boys, ages 11 and 7, and weekends around here usually include a lot of raucousness, loud action movies and video games, and a lot of "Mom, I'm hungry!"s. So when Monday rolls around, I cheerfully herd those sleepy-eyed boys on outta here, walk back into my house and embrace complete silence. Monday is my Saturday!

So to celebrate my Monday liberation, I thought I'd bake up something sweet! Cheers! Happy Monday!

Orange "Brownies" with Orange Rosemary Glaze

Tip: Don't be so fast to throw those butter wrappers in the garbage. You can use them to butter up the baking dish.

For the cake:
1 1/2 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
1 t. salt
2 c. sugar
1 c. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 T. grated orange zest
4 large eggs
For the glaze:
1 c. confectioner's sugar
1 t. grated orange zest
1/2 t. minced fresh rosemary
2 T. fresh orange juice

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 13x9 inch baking dish, set aside.

2. Combine flour and salt in a medium bowl. In a stand-mixer or using a handheld mixer, cream together sugar, butter and orange zest. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add in flour mixture, mix until thoroughly combined. Spread batter into prepared pan. Bake until golden brown and set, about 30 minutes. Let sit for 10 minutes. Using a fork, prick the cake evenly all over.

3. Prepare the glaze. Combine all the glaze ingredients and whisk until smooth. Pour and quickly spread evenly over the brownies. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Spinach and Asparagus Salad with Roasted Red Peppers, Smoked Paprika Croutons and Kalamata Olive Vinaigrette (now that's a mouthful)

Yippee! Spring is coming, and that means asparagus is in season once again. Every winter I look forward to the tell-tale sign that spring is on the horizon when asparagus appears in abundance at every local supermarket. And I am all over it!

It wasn't always this way for me. I was convinced for years that I hated asparagus. Due to bad childhood memory association, the asparagus of my youth was overcooked, slimy, army-green, salty and always from a can (same thing with peas and spinach, ugh! However, as a kid I actually liked those). Asparagus straight-up scared me. I was led to believe that this was some sort of gourmet thing, of which I was convinced I wanted to have nothing to do with.

This fear of asparagus endured long and strong, even through my early adult life, where I spent 6 1/2 years as a vegetarian. I never touched the stuff. It wasn't until my mid-twenties, newly-married, my husband started to hint to me that we should give it a try (I think his kid/asparagus experience was not too different from mine). We bought some beautiful, fresh asparagus,cooked it up the right way and happily devoured it. Now I joke with my husband that asparagus is the vegetable of our love.

So now me and asparagus are perennial buddies. No longer a nightmare from my youth. I love it steamed, sauteed, fried, baked, broiled & grilled. Just keep that can away from me. What a sad fate for such a beautiful vegetable.

Spinach and Asparagus Salad with Roasted Red Peppers, Smoked Paprika Croutons and Kalamata Olive Vinaigrette 
~serves 6~

*note:  putting the goat cheese in the freezer for 10-15 minutes prior to crumbling makes it much easier to crumble without sticking to your fingers so much.

For the smoked paprika croutons:
2 c. 1/2 inch bread cubes
2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove of garlic, minced in a garlic press or grated on a microplane grater
3/4 t. smoked paprika
1/8 t. salt
For the kalamata vinaigrette: (makes about 2/3 c.)
2 T. finely minced kalamata olives
1 T. minced shallot
3/4 t. minced fresh thyme
1/2 t. smoked paprika
1 1/2 T. red wine vinegar
1/3 c. extra-virgin olive oil
salt & pepper
For the salad:
1 lb asparagus, tough ends snapped off, cut into 2-inch lengths
2 red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, cut into 2-inch strips
6 oz. bag baby spinach
4 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
kalamata vinaigrette
smoked paprika croutons

1. For the croutons: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix together olive oil, garlic, smoked paprika, and salt in a medium bowl. Add bread cubes and toss until evenly coated. Spread onto a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until golden brown and crisp, about 15 minutes. Remove from oven. Cool completely.

2. For the vinaigrette: Combine all the dressing ingredients (plus salt and pepper to taste). Set aside.

3. To prepare the asparagus: Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add 2 t. salt and asparagus. Cook for about 2 minutes, until asparagus is bright green and crisp-tender. Remove asparagus with a slotted spoon and plunge immediately in a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Drain asparagus and pat dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. 

4. To put the salad together: Combine the asparagus and roasted peppers in a medium bowl. Toss in 2 tablespoons of vinaigrette. Toss the spinach with the remaining vinaigrette, add in the asparagus-roasted pepper mixture, the goat cheese and the croutons. Toss well to combine. Serve immediately.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Clams Steamed in White Wine with Tarragon and Tomato

Recently my husband and I celebrated our 12th anniversary with a weekend trip to Seattle. On the night of our anniversary we dined on steamed clams in white wine (complete with a spectacular view of the Seattle skyline).  The clams were great, but we were all about the broth in the bottom of the serving bowl. So briny, so buttery and delicious! What was odd though is that they didn't serve us the dish with any bread to soak it all up with. Well that didn't dissuade us, we just picked up the empty clam shells and spooned up all that yummy wine-spiked clam broth (until we could flag down our waitress for some bread, which she happily obliged us).

I couldn't wait to get home and make my own version of white wine-steamed clams. And this time I made sure there was plenty of bread to soak up all the broth.

Clam Steamed in White Wine with Tarragon and Tomato
~serves 4 generously as a main course, serves 6-8 as an appetizer~

4 lb. clams (I use Manila clams here), scrubbed well, discarding any with broken shells as well as clams that          
     are open and won't close again after tapping them on the shell (dead clams)
2c. white wine
1 large shallot, minced (about 1/2 c.)
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 bay leaf
4 T. unsalted butter
1 T. minced fresh tarragon
1 Roma tomato, cored, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch dice
the juice of 1 lemon (or to taste)
generous grinding of black pepper

1. In a large dutch oven or stockpot, combine wine, shallot, garlic and bay leaf. Simmer together over medium heat for 3-4 min. to bring out the flavors. 

2. Increase heat to high, add the clams. Cover the pot and steam, 5-8 min.,until all the clams open, stirring twice while they cook.

3. Using a slotted spoon, remove the clams to a serving bowl, discarding any unopened clams.

4. Reduce heat to low, add the butter & swirl it around in the liquid to make and emulsified sauce. Stir in tarragon, tomato, lemon juice and black pepper. Ladle the broth over the clams. Serve immediately. Don't forget the bread! 

Friday, March 2, 2012

Macaroni & Cheese with Cheesy Buttered Breadcrumb Topping

I love macaroni & cheese (who doesn't ?). But a long time ago I abandoned my attempts at making it at home.  Always disappointed in the the results of my efforts, I'd put all this time into making what promised to be everything I could ever want in this most delicious of casseroles, only to end up with a big ol' pan of overcooked noodles and grainy, stodgy cheese sauce. And forget about it making for good leftovers, because, by the next day all the liquid would absorb into the noodles and I'd be left with blown out 'macaroni and grease'. No thank you. After awhile I would only attempt home style mac & cheese while dining out, thinking "hey, there's got to be somebody out there that makes the good stuff." Sadly I have yet to find that place.

So eventually I gave up all together and started relying exclusively on the blue box. At least I could count on consistent results, and at least because it wasn't so rich I would be able to eat that more than once a year. And truth be told, I sorta have a soft place in my heart for the blue box, my favorite of all the prepackaged, processed foods. Unfortunately though for the good folks at Kraft, my New Year's resolution this year is to cut out prepackaged, processed foods. So I was back to my old quest of finding a recipe for macaroni & cheese that wouldn't be so egregiously calorie-rich that I would have to skip breakfast and lunch just to feel okay about eating it for dinner.

Over the past few years I have been seeing recipes that use a base of canned, evaporated milk. And it completely solves the curdled, grainy cheese sauce problem. Big Plus! Other big plus's, leftovers reheat beautifully (creamy not greasy), and the noodles and sauce are prepared in the same pan. I wouldn't exactly call this version of macaroni & cheese low-cal but it is definitely more a more sensible version. And hey, this is macaroni & cheese we're talking about after all, it isn't supposed to be diet food.

 Macaroni & Cheese with Cheesy Buttered Breadcrumb Topping
~serves 4~

Breadcrumb Topping:
2 T. unsalted butter 
1 1/2 c. soft, fresh breadcrumbs (about 2 slices of bread)
1/8 t. salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
2T. grated parmesan cheese

Macaroni & Cheese:
8 oz. macaroni 
1 (12 oz.) can reduced-fat evaporated milk
3/4 c. 2% milk
1/2 t. dijon mustard
pinch of celery salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt & pepper
2 t. cornstarch
8 oz. reduced-fat cheddar cheese, shredded (about 2 c.)

1. To make the breadcrumb topping: Melt the butter in a medium skillet over low heat. Add the breadcrumbs, salt and cayenne. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring often until golden brown, 7-10 min. Transfer the toasted breadcrumbs to a plate and let cool for 3 min. Stir in the parmesan cheese, set aside.

2. To make the macaroni & cheese: Bring 2 1/2 quarts of water to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the macaroni and 2 t.salt. Cook, stirring often until pasta is tender. Drain pasta, reserving 1/2 c. of the pasta cooking water. Leave the macaroni in the colander while preparing the sauce.   

3. Combine the evaporated milk, 1/2 c. 2% milk, dijon mustard, 1/4 t. salt, cayenne and celery salt in the saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Whisk together the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 c. 2% milk, then add to the simmering sauce. Continue to simmer for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until sauce is slightly thickened.

4. Remove pan from heat and stir in the cheddar cheese until melted and smooth. Stir in the cooked macaroni. Let the macaroni sit until the sauce is thickened, 3-5 minutes. Season to taste with salt & pepper. You can loosen the consistancy of the mac & cheese if it becomes too thick by adding in some of the reserved pasta cooking water. Serve, sprinkling the cheesy, buttered breadcrumbs on each serving.

Recipe source: modified  from The America's Test Kitchen Healthy Family Cookbook