Friday, April 27, 2012

Tired of the Same-Old, Same-Old for Dinner?

I remember a co-worker and I were once discussing our typical dinners and she mentioned that if she ate one more chicken dinner, she was afraid she would start clucking!!! I know that chicken breast has a frequent starring role in our dinners and though I make chicken a dozen or more ways to introduce variety and excitement into our meals (topics for future posts), it still can get boring. One way of re-igniting your family's interest in dinner is by making an exciting side dish instead of going the boring steamed veg, baked potato and salad route (yawn). One of my new favorite side dishes is Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Honey. Sweet potatoes have much more nutrition than their white counterparts and the addition of honey, cinnamon and a bit of oil intensifies their already complex flavor. The trick here is to cut the potatoes into thin wedges or blocks, lay them out in a single layer on a non-stick surface (my personal favorite is parchment paper, but non-stick aluminum foil would work just as well), and set the oven temperature to 375°. The potatoes need time to cook through before they start browning and 375° seems to work well for that. The best tasting part of these potatoes is the almost burned edges, so don't be afraid to let them get very brown! I usually peel the potatoes, but feel free to simply scrub them well and leave the peel on, if that is your preference. Sweet potatoes are a little tougher to peel and cut up than white potatoes, but a good peeler, sharp knife and a cutting board gets the job done and this dish is well worth the effort. One other pointer, if you measure out the oil first, then measure the honey in the same measuring cup, the residual oil will keep the honey from sticking to the measuring cup and you won't have to spend 5 minutes scraping the honey off the sides of the cup!

Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Honey
Serves: 4
Oven Temperature: 375°

4 large sweet potatoes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup honey
2 tsp cinnamon
salt & pepper, to taste

Peel and cut the sweet potatoes into long thin wedges and arrange in a single layer in a shallow roasting pan on parchment paper or non-stick aluminum foil. Heat remaining ingredients in a small saucepan until honey is melted and combines with other ingredients. Drizzle or brush over fries so all surfaces are coated. Roast at 375° for 25 to 30 minutes, brushing again with the oil and honey mixture halfway through the cooking time, until tender and all sides are browned.

Notes & Pointers:
Honestly, this will probably serve only two people because it will be hard to stop eating them! When I make this side dish for my husband and me, I divide the potatoes into 2 baking pans and as soon as they are cooked, I put one well covered pan into the fridge for another day--they are so good that I can't depend on us to stop eating at the halfway mark!

Friday, April 20, 2012

Stirring, Stirring, Stirring My Brew.....

Stirring is a fundamental skill required for cooking. You're thinking, "Duh.....I stir my coffee/tea every's a no brainer, right?" Well, yes--and no. Stirring a thin liquid like your morning brew IS a no brainer. With that type of liquid, a cursory swirl with a spoon is all that's required to integrate the ingredients and keep the mass moving. Things get a little more fussy when you are cooking up a batch of chunky soup or stew, or a pot of thick tomato sauce, or, one of my personal obsessions, chocolate pudding. When you get in deep with the viscous stuff you really need to choose your weapon wisely and hone your technique or you will find burned portions sticking to the bottom of the pot after you serve. Trust me, that crusty burned stuff can affect the taste of the entire batch--and not in a good way! 

I recently made a batch of my favorite rich, dark chocolate pudding, an indulgence that is a completely different experience from the powdery stuff that comes in a box. As an avowed chocaholic, I find that most of the commercial chocolate offerings are too heavy on sugar and fat and too light on chocolate taste. Not so with this recipe. This pudding is incredibly chocolatey, courtesy of Hershey's Special Dark cocoa powder, and because I use one percent milk, very low fat. By making it from scratch, you can adjust the ingredients to your own taste, which I did when I found this recipe, reducing the sugar, increasing the cocoa, and leaving out the heavy cream. If you find the chocolate flavor too intense (I can't believe I wrote that!), feel free to substitute any regular cocoa powder (which, it should be noted, is not the stuff you mix with hot water to make hot chocolate--this is unsweetened cocoa powder, designed for cooking and baking).

As illustrated, when I first start this recipe, I add all the dry ingredients to the sauce pot (one somewhat larger than strictly necessary to contain the ingredients...that way if my stirring gets over zealous at any point, I don't have to wash the stove!). I then add the milk and begin combining the ingredients rather briskly over medium heat with a wire whisk. Once the steam begins to rise off the milk, I know my mixture is starting to heat up allowing the cornstarch to perform its magic and thicken the mixture. It is at this point that I switch to a blunt wooden implement which will really scrape the cooked portions off the bottom without scarring my pot. I make sure to stir up the entire bottom of the pot vigorously and continuously, even around the edges, so that none of the pudding will stick and burn. As soon as it begins to boil, the cornstarch will have reached maximum thickening power and the pudding is done. Pour into serving dishes, cover and chill. As you can see from the picture of the empty pot, I left no pudding unturned! Sweet success, indeed.

Chocolate Cornstarch Pudding
Serves: 4 to 6

9 Tbs. cocoa powder
3/4 cup sugar
4-1/2 cups milk (1% lowfat)
1/8 tsp. salt
6 Tbs. cornstarch
2-1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

In a two quart saucepan, stir together cocoa powder, sugar, milk, salt and cornstarch. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly with whisk until ingredients are combined. When it begins to thicken, switch to a blunt implement and scrape the thickened portions off the bottom of the pot. When bubbly and quite thick, remove from heat, stir in vanilla gently. Pour into 4 to 6 dessert cups, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled.

Notes & Pointers:
Being the chocoholic I am, you know this is the darkest, richest chocolate pudding you've ever tasted! But since I use cocoa powder rather than whole chocolate and 1% milk, it's also guilt free and very nearly fat free, so enjoy as often as possible. I usually use extra dark cocoa powder.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Greek Feast Part 2: Spanakopitas

Spanakopitas (or Spanokopitas--I've seen it spelled both ways) are delicious, crispy phyllo turnovers filled with a savory mixture of spinach, feta cheese, onions and just enough egg to bind the filling together. They are really quite easy to make, if a bit tedious, since they are individually filled and folded. I have also seen, but never made, spanakopita pie, using the same filling but in a single large pan, with numerous layers of buttered phyllo sheets both below and covering the entire filling. It is then cut into portions to serve. For me, though, I love the "cute" factor of having individual servings, so I take the time to make the tiny triangles.

The first time I used phyllo dough, I unwrapped it and thought, "Isn't it nice that they put paper between the sheets of dough," then I realized the "paper" WAS the dough! The only possible pitfalls in this recipe are that the spinach must be absolutely dry or it will make the phyllo soggy. Pick up small handfuls of the defrosted spinach and squeeze until no more water exudes. The other thing to be aware of is that phyllo dough dries out quickly and actually shatters when dry, so cover any portions you won't be using in the next few minutes. I find the easiest way to apportion the dough is to cut the still wrapped roll of phyllo into thirds with a sharp serrated knife. Wrap two thirds of the roll in a plastic bag and seal well, pressing out all the air. Unroll the remaining third and start filling and folding. I usually use 2 sheets of phyllo for each triangle to make them a little more substantial. As soon as each triangle is filled, brush all surfaces with butter. That will keep them from drying out and ensure beautiful browning.

Serves: 6 to 8
Oven Temperature: 425°

1 small onion, diced
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 (10 oz.) pkg. chopped spinach, squeezed dry
1 egg, beaten
1/4 lb. feta cheese, crumbled
1/8 tsp. pepper
1/3 lb. phyllo leaves
1/2 cup butter, melted

Sauté onion in oil until tender. Stir in spinach, remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. Stir in egg, cheese and pepper.

Cut phyllo leaves lengthwise into 2" wide strips (see hint above regarding apportioning the dough). Working with 1 or 2 strips at time, place one rounded teaspoon of filling at the short end of the strip closest to you. Fold the strip away from you to cover the filling so the bottom edge meets the left edge, forming a triangle. Then fold over the triangle you've just created. Continue folding the phyllo just like a flag is folded. It should end up looking like a triangularly folded flag. Place seam side down on buttered cookie sheet. Brush with butter. Repeat until all filling is used. Bake at 425° for 15 minutes or until golden.

Notes & Pointers:
These can be prepared ahead of time, and refrigerated or frozen until ready to bake. If frozen, reduce oven temperature to 375° and bake for 20 minutes or until golden. This makes a wonderful side dish to accompany Pastitsio (see my previous post) or a great appetizer on its own. Feta is one ingredient where I don't use a low fat alternative...low fat feta has absolutely no taste! In any case, feta is naturally lower in fat than most other cheeses.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Greek Feast Part 1: Pastitsio

I learned to make Pastitsio many years ago, coming across this recipe in a women's magazine. I'm not sure how authentic it is, only that it is delicious. I do know that I shared the recipe with a friend who made it for her Greek Dad (a former chef, BTW), who seemed to really enjoy it. I don't know if he was just being kind, but I do know that whenever I have served it, to family and friends alike, they seem to love it.

It's a pasta dish that includes a well seasoned meat sauce along with a cheesy bechamel topping....what's not to love? As for the "feast" mentioned in the title, I usually complete this meal with homemade olive bread, spanokopitas (phyllo dough triangles stuffed with spinach and feta cheese), a green salad topped with crumbled feta, olives and a red wine vinaigrette, and, for a really special end to the meal, baklava (a nutty, honey drenched phyllo concoction)--all recipes for future posts.

The original recipe uses ground beef, but I usually make it with ground turkey breast now, to reduce the fat and cholesterol content. I don't skimp on the cheese, though, as that's where the dish gets most of its flavor--everything in moderation! For vegetarians, I use a ground beef substitute, with equally delicious results. A bonus to this dish is that it can be made the day ahead and baked on the day you need it. If you have refrigerated it overnight, plan to bake it a bit longer, perhaps 45 minutes to an hour, at a lower temp, around 300°, so the top doesn't get overly brown before the inside is hot.

Serves: 4 to 6
Oven Temperature: 350°


For the pan:
1 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

For the filling:
1-1/2 lb. 97% lean ground beef or 99% lean turkey breast
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (8 oz.) can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
dash pepper
1-1/2 lb. elbow macaroni
1 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

For the sauce:
3 Tbs. butter
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1-1/2 cups milk
1 egg
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan. (If I'm using a Pyrex pan, I do this in the microwave. Otherwise, I just sit the baking pan on top of the pot of boiling pasta until the butter melts.) Sprinkle the breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup of the grated Romano evenly into the pan. Set aside. Brown the ground beef or turkey breast, onion and garlic in a large frying pan and drain in a colander to remove any fat (if using turkey, add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan and skip the draining, as there won't be any excess fat). Return to pan, then add the tomato sauce, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over low heat and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside. Meanwhile, cook the elbow macaroni in plenty of unsalted boiling water until barely done, drain, return pasta to the cooking pot and stir in 1 tablespoon butter. Pour half of the elbows into the prepared baking pan. Spoon the ground meat mixture evenly over the pasta. Top with the remaining elbows. Sprinkle 1/4 cup grated Romano cheese over the elbows. Set aside. Whisk together the butter and flour in a 2 quart saucepan over low heat until bubbly. Add the milk and simmer, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat. Beat egg in a small bowl. Add a couple of tablespoons of the hot sauce into the egg, stirring constantly, then quickly whisk the egg mixture into the saucepan. Return the pan to low heat just until it starts to bubble again, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining 1/4 cup grated Romano. Spoon the sauce evenly over the pasta in the baking pan. Bake it uncovered at 350° for about 30 to 45 minutes or until lightly browned.

Notes & Pointers:
The dish has a total of 3/4 cup of Romano cheese so don't add salt to the pasta cooking water or the finished dish will be too salty!