Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I save 'em up, then they'll go real far

As a child, Thursday was always leftover night. Mom cooked Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and on Thursday we had leftovers. As a family of two, leftover night seems to come around much more often, so it’s always nice to have a recipe that uses up those leftovers to make something different.

This week, we’re going to use leftover ragu (or meat sauce) to make stuffed sweet bell peppers. You can use whatever ragu recipe you like (or even jarred meat sauce if you so choose), but this particular ragu recipe is freshened up with a healthy twist and an ingredient that will cut your cooking time significantly. This complement to your favorite pasta is made with less fat by replacing ground beef with ground turkey or ground veal. [If price is a factor, ground turkey is your best bet.]

When you think of a really good tomato or meat sauce, you probably imagine tending to the dish for hours on the stove to cook down the acidity. Perhaps some of you have learned to add a bit of sugar to more quickly mask this quality of recipes calling for tomato-paste. The healthier alternative I was taught a few years ago (probably by my mother) is to use carrots instead.  

Even if you don’t care for carrots (Me! Me!), this does the job without adding affecting the taste. Now my mother uses a little jar or container of baby food carrots; however, as I found out using this recipe, carrots chopped in the food processor work just as well.

So subbing carrots for sugar and turkey for beef, you’ve whipped up a still-delicious and now healthier and quicker family favorite. Such talent!

The next day, later in the week, or later in the month – whenever you’re ready – you can use whatever leftover ragu you have in this second recipe: Ragu-Stuffed Peppers. If you’re going to wait more than a week, just freeze the ragu until you’re ready. Prepared with some ingredients unique to what you probably imagine as a stuffed bell pepper – such as couscous rather than a rice – you now have a second meal using a meal you’ve already prepared! Quel bonheur! 

Day 1: Fettuccine with Quick Ragu

1/2 onion
1 stalk celery, cut into 4 pieces
1 small carrot, cut into 4 pieces
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound ground veal or turkey
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup whole milk
12 ounces fettuccine
Freshly grated parmesan cheese, for serving

1. Pulse the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and rosemary in a food processor until finely chopped.

2. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the chopped vegetables and cook, stirring, until softened  and golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the veal (or turkey), 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes, milk, 1 cup water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until slightly thickened, about 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the fettuccine as teh label directs. Drain the pasta, then toss with half of the ragu (about 3 cups). Top with parmesan. Reserve the remaining ragu to make stuffed peppers.

Day 2 (or 5 or 30... or whenever you so choose): Ragu-Stuffed Peppers

4 bell peppers (red, yellow, orange or a mix), halved lengthwise, seeds removed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
About 3 cups leftover ragu
1/2 cup couscous (prepared according to package directions)
3/4 cups golden raisins
3/4 cup grated asiago or fontina cheese
4 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons tomato paste

1. Preheat the oven to 450. Toss the bell pepper halves with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large microwave-safe bowl. Cover and microwave until the peppers soften, 10 to 12 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, mix the ragu, couscous, raisins, 1/2 cup cheese, 3 teaspoons vinegar, parsley and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a bowl.
3. Whisk the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon vinegar, the tomato paste and 3/4 cup water in the bottom of a large nonreactive baking dish. Carefully transfer the peppers, cut-side up, to the baking dish and fill with the couscous mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese.
4. Cover the dish with foil and bake until the peppers are tender and the filling is hot, about 20 minutes. Transfer to plates and drizzle with he cooking liquid from the dish.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Everybody was kung fu fighting

I LOVE to eat out. I mean, not just a little bit. I savor in the rare outing to a top-name restaurant with a top-name Chef. John Besh. Michael Chiarrello  Hubert Keller. Love them all.

But I also most certainly appreciate that craving for delivery pizza or a walk down the Chinese buffet line. It might cost money, but it’s worth it because you can’t make those things at home… right?

Not so! [You knew that was a trick question.] 

Tonight we discovered that – at least in the case of Chinese food – many of the best parts of these meals can be easily (and quickly) replicated at home.

On the menu? Pork Fried Rice, Green Pepper Steak, and Sweet Pepper Chicken Stir Fry with Oyster Sauce.

--> EASY AND QUICK – If you put the proteins to marinate and cook the white rice the night before (which is recommended for fried rice, anyway), you can whip this up in less than an hour – a GREAT weeknight meal.
--> WELL-BALANCED – These dishes all include a high ratio of fresh food, and as we should all know fresh food is much healthier than the processed stuff. Pretty much any (non-fruit) ingredient in the produce section can be used in one of these dishes, which leads me to my third point.
-->FLEXIBLE – Don’t like sweet bell peppers? OK. Not a fan of mushrooms? No problem! Prefer carrots? Go for it! These dishes, especially the stir fry, are very friendly to your preferences.
-->NO MSG – ‘Nuff said.

--> SPECIALIZED INGREDIENTS – The first time you make these dishes, you might be buying a handful of bottles of ingredients you’ve never heard of at $2 or $3 a pop, which may add up. On the other hand, next time you want to make Chinese food, you’ll already have them, making it a very inexpensive meal later on.
--> WOK, RINSE, REPEAT – All three dishes are cooked in a wok, so I was cooking, transferring to a serving dish to be kept warm in the oven or microwave, and washing my wok for each dish, which would have made for a long process if I didn’t have a handy dandy husband who did this particular step for me. Possible quick fixes? More than one wok (Although storage would still be an issue.) or using a skillet for one of the meat dishes.

While the downsides are… well… there, I certainly think the upsides win the debate. Especially when you add the most important upside – FLAVOR. Both of my dinner guests went for seconds. Can’t ask for much more than that.

My next personal challenge in Asian cuisine will be one of my favorites and one of my most feared home meal: sushi. I'll let you know how it goes. But here is my challenge to you: next time you’re craving a Chinese buffet, takeout, or delivery (whatever your guilty pleasure may be), give one or all of these recipes a shot. 

Challenge extended. Challenge accepted?

Funky Fried Rice
[By Rachael Ray, in 30-Minute Meals]
2 cups of water
1 cup enriched white rice
2 tablespoons sesame oil [one of those ingredients you probably don’t have]
½ pound boneless center-cut pork chops, cut into thin strips, or ½ pound boneless, skinless chicken, cut into thin strips [I usually use a pork chop or whatever I can find in my freezer.]
½ red bell pepper, chopped [or yellow or orange, whichever you may have on hand]
2 green onions, thinly sliced on an angle
2 eggs, scrambled with black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons (several shakes) soy sauce
2 pinches crushed red pepper (a couple of shakes)
2 pinches ground ginger
1 cup fresh bean sprouts (found in organic produce section) [I omit this.]
1 cup (a couple of handfuls) frozen baby peas
½ cup (about ¼ pound) chopped baby shrimp (300 count) [I left this out this time, but will probably add it in next time I happen to have shrimp.]
½ cup toasted sliced almonds to garnish [I omit this as well.]
Boil water. Add rice. Reduce heat to simmer. Cover and cook 12 to 15 minutes, until liquid is absorbed. [OR do whatever you do to cook white rice. Rice cooker. Microwave rice cooker. Whatever works.] Dump rice onto a shallow plate to cool it down. Place rice in refrigerator until ready to use in the dish. Rice can be prepared the nigh before, as well. [Again, I recommend this to add speed to the cooking process on the day of.] Leftover white rice is the best for fried rice.

Heat 1 tablespoon sesame oil in wok or shallow, big nonstick skillet until oil is very hot and begins to smoke. Add meat and cook for 4 minutes – keeping the meat bits moving is important for even cooking. Remove meat.

Add bell pepper and green onions and heat through for a minute. Pour in eggs and scramble with veggies until eggs are set. Remove eggs.

Add 1 tablespoon sesame oil and vegetable oil to wok or skillet. Add cool or cold rice. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, crushed pepper, and ginger as the rice fries. Return meat and egg bits to wok. Add bean sprouts and peas and chopped baby shrimp. Combine rice, meat, and veggies well. Top with toasted almonds for crunch and serve right from the wok or pan. Feeds up to 6.

Sweet Pepper Chicken Stir Fry with Oyster Sauce
[As interpreted from a Food Network Magazine recipe]
2 boneless chicken breasts, thinly sliced against the grain [or any protein you choose prepared similarly]
3 cups of vegetables (your choice; I used 1 orange bell pepper, julienned; 1 yellow bell pepper, julienned; 1 medium onion, sliced; and 1 package of fresh mushrooms, sliced)
2 cloves minced garlic
1 to 2 tablespoons minced ginger [I use powdered ginger.]
2 minced scallions
a pinch of salt
a pinch of sugar
1 egg white
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry [I used dry sherry. You can find a bottle of this by the cheap wine in the grocery store for about 3 dollars.]
1 tablespoon cornstarch
            Oyster Sauce:
¾ cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 tablespoon soy sauce
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons sesame oil
Garnish (optional):
Sesame seeds
Sliced jalapenos

1.     Whisk together the marinade ingredients. Toss with the protein. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
2.     Whisk the sauce ingredients together.
3.     Drain the excess marinade from the protein. Place your sauce, vegetables and protein near the stove.
4.     Heat ¼ inch peanut or vegetable oil in a wok or skillet over medium heat. Add the protein; slowly stir until almost opaque, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Transfer to a plate; discard the oil and wipe out the pan.
5.     Heat the pan over high heat, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons oil, then garlic, ginger, scallions, salt and sugar; stir-fry about 30 seconds. Add the vegetables, starting with the ones that take the longest to cook; stir-fry until crisp-tender.
6.     Add the protein and sauce and stir until the sauce is thick and the vegetables and protein are cooked through, about 3 minutes. Thin with chicken broth, if needed. Garnish with sliced scallions, peanuts, sesame seeds, sliced jalapenos and/or cilantro.

Green Pepper Steak
[Interpreted from a newspaper recipe as altered years ago by my talented mother]
1 pound flank, round or sirloin steak, cut against the grain in 1/8” slices [I used seven steak.]
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 Tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cornstarch
a pinch of pepper
1 medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon each ginger and garlic, grated
½ cup chicken broth or water
2 Tablespoon cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tablespoon water and 1 teaspoon sugar
2 small green peppers, cubed
1 chopped green onion for garnish
4 Tablespoon oil for frying
1.     Marinate steak for 1 hour or longer in the next 5 ingredients.
2.     Set the wok on high heat. Add 2 Tablespoon oil; heat until hot.
3.     Add onion, garlic, ginger, and bell peppers; stir-fry until the onions are slightly brown.
4.     Add chicken broth and bring to a boil.
5.     Stir in cornstarch mixture.
6.     Continue stir-frying until gravy boils.
7.     Garnish with green onion.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Baby, It's Cold Outside

And FINALLY, the cold weather greets us. As fleeting as her presence may be, I’m going to greet her in the best culinary way I know --- with soup.
For me, there’s nothing like coming home from work having walked in and out of the cold weather all day to cuddle up with a warm blanket, an episode of Glee (or whatever my TiVo has on the queue), and a bowl of a warm soup.

As someone who, more often than not, is only cooking for two, I’ve become a big fan of dishes that freeze well. As we peek into Louisiana’s take on winter, I am jumping at the chance to cook one of my favorite freezeables – soup.

This week I’m enjoying two soups: an Apple Cheddar Squash Soup and a Corn Soup.

Now these two soups fall on opposite ends of the soup spectrum. The first is what is considered a velouté – a thick soup (similar to the viscosity of bisque) without any large morsels. Generally it involves pureeing the soup in batches in a blender, but I’ve found that as a full-time [insert your profession here] who has a short period of time to fix weeknight dinners, veloutés can be more easily made using one of my favorite tools – the immersion blender. As a child, this was my means to a chocolate malt. (Who am I kidding? As an adult, it still is.) But now its uses have broadened with my culinary capabilities.

[From: Food Network Magazine]


  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 medium apples, thinly sliced
  • 1 large white potato, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped peeled butternut squash, fresh or frozen [As I've mentioned in previous posts, there are many squash that can be substituted for butternut squash, including sweet dumpling squash, which I have successfully used to make this soup.]
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried sage
  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup apple cider
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto, torn into bite-size pieces
  • 2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese, plus more for garnish
  • Chopped chives, for garnish (optional)
  • Crusty bread, for serving (optional)


Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium-low heat and add the onion, apples, potato and squash. Season with salt and pepper and cook until the onion is soft, about 8 minutes. Stir in the sage and flour. Add the cider and cook over high heat, stirring, until thickened. Add the broth and milk, cover and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring, until the potato is soft, 8 to 10 minutes.
[Following my no-proscuitto because it's too costly rule, I -- of course -- leave this next part out.] Meanwhile, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the prosciutto and cook until crisp, turning occasionally, about 2 minutes. Drain on paper towels.
Add the cheese to the soup and stir over medium-low heat until melted. Puree in a blender in batches until smooth [Use immersion blender here!]; season with salt and pepper. Garnish with the prosciutto, more cheese and chives, if using. Serve with bread, if desired.

While the Apple-Cheddar-Squash Soup is definitely do-able on a weeknight for a working cook (especially if you stick to the butternut squash version, which doesn’t require any advanced preparation of the squash), the Corn Soup takes a little longer only because it requires “simmering time” of about an hour and a half.

Also, contrasting with the first, this second soup is more like a bisque. Because its base is a roux, you can make it as thick as you like. If you prefer thick soups – like I do – then make more roux and use the same amount of liquid. For a lighter soup, either add more liquid or make less roux. Easy enough, right?

This particular soup recipe comes from a variety of sources. One, found in a local magazine (POV), was submitted by a friend of my parents. I made adjustments based on the preferences of my husband and based on other corn soups I’ve enjoyed.

Corn Soup
[By: David Fakier as submitted to POV Magazine
Serves 6-8
1 piece lean salt pork
3 cooking spoons oil 
3 cooking spoons flour [This is how many a Cajun chef measures the start of his/her roux. In measuring them, I’ve found these "cooking spoons" to be anywhere between 1/8 cup and ¼ cup. Mine is just under ¼ cup. But the most important thing is equal parts of oil and flour. The consistency can be adjusted later when you add the liquid.]
1 onion, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2-3 stalks celery, chopped
1 (14 ½ ounce) can stewed tomatoes
1 pound bag frozen corn
1 (10 ounce) can diced tomatoes and green chilies
2 cups smoked ham, cubed [I leave this out.]
1 packaged link of smoked sausage [I use the little cocktail wieners.]
3 cans (14-15 ounce) cream-style corn
1 teaspoon basil, dried
¼ cup chopped parsley
[Also, I added cooked pasta at the end. Any kind works, and the amount is up to personal preference as well. Usually around 12 or 16 ounces will suffice.]

Boil salt pork in 2 cups of water. Skim off the foam on top and reserve water for soup. If salt pork is lean, you may wish to include it in the soup. [If it’s not lean, cut the fat off and include it anyway. J] Make a roux by adding flour and oil into a large heavy pot, at least an 8 quart pot. Once the roux is brown, add onions, bell peppers, and celery until soft. Add tomatoes and frozen corn. Next, add ham, sausage, and salt pork. Cook about 30 minutes. Add cream corn. Add water (from salt pork) almost to the top of the pot, to desired consistency. Cook 1 ½ hours. Add parsley and basil last. [And the pasta, if you’re using it.]