Thursday, March 29, 2012

Baked Macaroni and Cheese

Every Sunday after church, my family eats macaroni and cheese for lunch.  The kind from a box.  With powdered orange "cheese."  With peanut butter and crackers on the side.  What a bunch of weirdos.

Actually, they probably eat much more sophisticated lunches now that I'm out of the house.

And actually, my husband and I started the tradition on vicarage of eating boxed mac and cheese every Sunday after church.

And actually, we still do.


I've honestly never been much of a fan of homemade macaroni and cheese, probably because I was used to the boxed stuff as a kid and thought that it was the real thing, to which no other macaroni could compare.  On the other hand, I can't even remember the last time I've tried a bowl of the homemade stuff.  Apparently, I've been missing out.  This week, inspired by the Good Eats episode "For Whom the Cheese Melts 2" (recipe here), I made a baked version from the magazine Fine Cooking.  It was good.  Not that you can really go wrong with three kinds of cheese and a crispy, golden brown topping.

As usual, I made a few minor changes, like substituting panko for the fresh breadcrumbs.  (Panko, by the way, is great for all kinds of toppings and breadings.  It's under $2 for a box and keeps forever.  You should be able to find it in the Asian section at Meijer or Kroger.)  Next time, I'll probably cut down on the thyme, which was slightly overpowering this time around.  I stuck with the basic version, but the recipe also suggests some extras, like ham or hot chilies, that you can add for a new level of deliciousness.  Maybe next Sunday I'll add some bacon.  You can bet I won't be opening a box.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese (based on this recipe)
Serves 4
Time:  45 minutes

Kosher or coarse salt
3 T. butter
1 small onion, finely diced
3 T. flour
1 1/2 tsp. Dijon or spicy mustard
2 cups 2% or whole milk
1 large sprig fresh thyme, plus 1/2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme leaves (OR 1/4 tsp. dry thyme leaves)
1 bay leaf
4 oz. (1 packed cup) grated extra-sharp Cheddar
2 oz. (1/2 packed cup) grated Monterey Jack
1/4 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp. Tabasco sauce
freshly ground black pepper  
1/2 lb. elbow macaroni or other small pasta, such as small shells  
3 T. butter, melted
1 cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup Parmesan

Heat the oven to 400°F and put a large pot of well-salted water on to boil over high heat.

Meanwhile, in another large pot or Dutch oven (I only have one big pot, so I used a large skillet with high sides), melt 3 T. butter over medium heat. Add the onion and 1/4 tsp. salt and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until softened, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, until slightly darker, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the mustard.

Switch to a whisk and gradually add the milk, whisking constantly. Go slowly at first, whisking until the mixture is smooth before adding more milk.

Switch back to the spoon and stir in the thyme sprig, bay leaf, and 1/4 tsp. salt. Bring to a bare simmer, and cook, stirring frequently, for 15 minutes (reduce the heat to medium low or low as needed to maintain the bare simmer).  Discard thyme sprig and bay leaf. Add Cheddar and Jack cheeses, stirring until melted, then add the Worcestershire and Tabasco. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm, stirring occasionally.

Cook the pasta until al dente. Drain thoroughly. Add the pasta to the cheese sauce, and stir until well combined. Spread mixture in a lightly greased casserole. (I used an oblong, 2 1/2-quart dish.  If you follow the original recipe, use a 9x13-inch casserole; I've halved the recipe here.)

In a medium bowl, toss the panko, Parmesan, melted butter, chopped thyme, 1/4 tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. pepper. Scatter mixture evenly over the pasta.

Bake, uncovered, until topping is golden, about 15 minutes. Let rest for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Crispy Chicken Quesadillas

It's hot.  Today it was hotter in Fort Wayne than in Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, and, yes, even the Bahamas.  Eighty-seven degrees.  In March.  In Fort Wayne.  Pretty soon the Floridians are going to be planning spring break trips to Indiana so they can work on their tans.  And while I haven't turned on the air conditioning like some of you wimps out there, I determined that using the oven was still a dumb move.  Instead, I broke out the food processor and made ham and cheese spread.  It's not the healthiest meal out there.  I don't think it even qualifies as a meal.  It is, quite literally, ham and cheese and mayonnaise and more cheese on crackers.  Seasoned with sherry, mustard, pepper, and... definitely not salt.  My brain must've melted--it's the only possible reason I could have been talked into eating that stuff for dinner.  Or pure laziness.  Did I mention it was hot?

Anyway, if you're looking for something a bit more reasonable that also doesn't involve turning your kitchen into a blazing inferno (more on that another time), I suggest these tasty quesadillas.  I adapted them from a recipe found on Pinterest, and you can make your own changes too, although the combination of chicken, rice, and black beans is hard to top.  I used small tortillas, which worked either as quesadillas or folded in half and stuffed; larger (burrito size) tortillas can be made into wraps, as described in the original recipe.

Crispy Chicken Quesadillas
Time:  30 minutes (plus rice- and chicken-cooking time)
Serves 6

1 1/2 cups cooked rice (I used one bag of boil-in-bag brown rice to save time)
1 1/2 cups cooked shredded chicken
1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 green onion, finely sliced (white and green parts)
1 (4 oz.) can diced green chilies
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
juice of 1 lime
2 tsp. chili powder
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. garlic salt
butter or cooking spray
1 pkg. small flour tortillas
about 2 cups shredded cheese (I used sharp cheddar
sour cream, shredded lettuce, and diced tomatoes, for serving (optional)

Thoroughly combine first 10 ingredients (through garlic salt).  If necessary, heat mixture in microwave (it should be warmer than room temperature).

Preheat a skillet over medium heat.  For each quesadilla, butter two tortillas on one side only.  Place one tortilla, butter side down, on hot pan.  Quickly sprinkle cheese over tortilla, leaving narrow border around edges, then allow to partially melt (to speed this process, top with a lid--avoid overcooking the tortilla).  Spread chicken mixture over cheese.  Top with second tortilla, butter side up.  When bottom tortilla is browned, flip the whole quesadilla and brown the second side (I use two spatulas, one to flip and the other to "catch" the quesadilla on its way down).

Serve with sour cream, lettuce, and tomato (avocado is yummy, too!).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Venison-Bacon Burgers

You know you want one.  The weather's perfect, the grill is calling, and you've got one last little bit of venison in the freezer.  And did I mention the bacon?  Why waste perfectly good bacon by covering it in chocolate or deep-frying it to death, when you can turn it into a deliciously juicy burger?

Venison-Bacon Burgers (from this recipe)
Time:  1 hour or less
Serves 6

6 slices bacon
2 minced shallots (I used green onions)
2 lbs. ground venison
1 tsp. minced garlic (about 1 clove)
1 T. Worcestershire sauce
1 T. chopped fresh parsley
1 egg, lightly beaten
salt and pepper, to taste
olive oil as needed

Cook bacon in a skillet over medium heat until brown and crispy.  Crumble bacon (chop or use food processor) and place in large mixing bowl to cool.  Add bacon grease from pan, leaving 1-2 tsp. to cook aromatics.

Saute garlic and shallots in reserved bacon grease over medium heat until softened (add a little olive oil if you don't have enough grease).  Add to bacon.  Once cooled, add venison, Worcestershire, parsley, egg, and salt and pepper.  Work mixture together with hands until evenly combined.  Add a little olive oil if it seems too dry (venison is very lean, so you need to add a little fat in the form of bacon grease or olive oil to keep it moist).

Cover and refrigerate the whole mixture for about 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, preheat grill to medium-high heat.  Shape chilled meat into 6 patties and grill until desired doneness (in other words, I have no idea how long my husband grilled them--but he did an excellent job).

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Irish Soda Bread

Reuben sandwiches and Irish soda bread.  That's what my family always eats for St. Patrick's Day dinner.  Reubens because my mom can't stand corned beef and cabbage, and Irish soda bread because it's the most delicious bread in the world.  Okay, so Reubens aren't exactly Irish fare.  My family isn't exactly Irish, either.  If you have to rattle off a list like "Irish, Scottish, Dutch, German, Mexican, and maybe Aztec, if that even counts, and maybe Italian instead of Dutch because my great-great-something grandfather may or may not have lied about that when he came to America," then maybe you're not Irish enough to eat corned beef and cabbage, anyway.  Corned beef and sort-of-cabbage on a sandwich oozing with Swiss cheese and thousand island dressing is a far better alternative, I think.  Even my quarter-Irish husband agrees.

And then the soda bread, so hearty and comforting, bursting with little bites of caraway and raisins (or no raisins, if you want).  It's best just out of the oven, still steaming hot, smeared with a little butter--although it's so creamy, it hardly needs the help.  My parents used to limit the number of pieces each person could have, because my ravenous teenage brothers would sneak away with half the loaf if nobody kept guard over it.  They probably still do.  Now I'm married and can bake my own Irish soda bread and eat it too.  I honestly could make this stuff every week and not get tired of it.  Who cares if St. Patrick's Day is almost over?  (Yeah, yeah, I should have posted this three days ago so you could have soda bread with your corned beef.  Just make it anyway.  St. Patrick probably won't mind.)

Irish Soda Bread (from The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook)
Time:  1 1/2 hours (80 minutes for a half loaf*)
Serves 8

4 cups flour
3 T. sugar
1 T. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. baking soda
6 T. butter, cut into small chunks
1 1/2 cups dark seedless raisins (optional)
1 T. caraway seed
2 eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk OR milk soured with 1 tsp. lemon juice (let stand 5 minutes)

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Grease a 2-quart round casserole (I like to use a Pyrex bowl).  In large bowl with a fork or whisk, mix flour and next four ingredients (through baking soda).  With pastry blender, cut in butter until mixture resembles large crumbs; stir in raisins, if desired, and caraway.

In small bowl with whisk, beat eggs slightly; remove 1 T. and set aside.  Stir buttermilk or milk into remaining egg; stir into flour mixture just until flour is moistened (dough will be sticky).

Turn dough onto well-floured surface; knead about 10 times to mix thoroughly (you can also do this right in the bowl).  Shape into a ball; place in casserole.  In center of ball, cut a 4-inch cross 1/4 inch deep.  (Supposedly this is to let the fairies out, but it mostly just makes the bread look cool.)  Brush dough with reserved egg.

Bake about 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until a sharp knife inserted in center comes out clean.  Let cool in casserole 10 minutes; remove from casserole and cool completely on a wire rack.

*To make a half loaf, use a 1- or 1 1/2-quart casserole and bake for 1 hour.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Greek-Style Chicken Wraps of Awesomeness, with Homemade Olga Bread and Tzatziki Sauce

Yesterday, in honor of my birthday and the uncharacteristically warm and beautiful weather, my husband and I made these Greek-inspired chicken wraps.  Everything was made from scratch, from the yeasty-sweet flatbread, to the tangy yogurt and cucumber sauce, to the juicy grilled chicken skewers.  They. were. so. good.  If you never cook another thing from this blog, you must give these a try.

Granted, it took us about three hours, start to finish (if partly due to poor planning on my part), and the ingredient list is half a mile long.  I can suggest a few shortcuts:  1. Use store-bought flatbread or pita bread.  2. Use sliced Brakebush chicken and drizzle on the marinade.  3. Buy a wrap from King Gyro's.

Seriously, guys.  This isn't Quick Cooking.  If you want food this good, sometimes you really have to spend a little extra time to make it.  Trust me--it's time well spent.  Just wait for a leisurely, warm weekend, fire up the grill, and do a little planning ahead so you don't waste an extra hour (like me).  Not that I minded.  I got to spend half my birthday eating and cooking with my husband, and it was pretty great.

Some tips before you begin:
-If possible, make the tzatziki sauce a day ahead of time to allow the flavors to meld.
-It's also a good idea to begin marinating the chicken a day ahead, or at least in the morning.
-If you do end up making everything at once, start with the chicken, then make the bread.  While the bread rises and chicken marinates, you can make the sauce, chop vegetables, and start the grill.  With two people, the whole process should take about two hours.

Greek-Style Chicken Wraps (based on the recipe here)
Serves 4-6
Time:  50 minutes, plus 1-24 hours for marinading

3/4 cup balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing (NOT straight balsamic vinegar)
3 T. lemon juice (from 1 1/2 lemons)
1 T. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 fresh boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes

Tzatziki Sauce:
1/2 cup seeded, shredded cucumber
1 tsp. coarse or kosher salt
1 cup plain yogurt
1/4 cup sour cream
1 T. lemon juice (from 1/2 lemon)
1/2 T. rice vinegar (OR white vinegar)
1 tsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 to 2 tsp. dill weed (OR 1 T. chopped fresh dill)
1/2 tsp. Greek seasoning (I make my own from the recipe here)

1 small head romaine lettuce, thinly chopped
1 red onion, thinly sliced
1 large tomato, diced
1 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional)

In a small bowl, combine first four marinade ingredients.  Place chicken in a large resealable plastic bag.  Add marinade; toss to coat.  Refrigerate for at least one hour.

Meanwhile, soak wooden skewers (if using) in water.  Prepare Olga bread (recipe below).  Chop lettuce, red onion, and tomato.  Preheat an outdoor grill for high heat (you can also broil the chicken, if you must, but it won't be nearly as tasty).

Prepare tzatsiki sauce (best if made the day ahead):  Toss cucumber with coarse salt, and allow it to sit at least 5 minutes (the salt releases excess moisture).  In a medium bowl, combine remaining sauce ingredients.  Squeeze cucumber to remove excess water; stir drained cucumber into sauce.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

Remove chicken from marinade and place evenly on skewers.  Discard remaining marinade.  Grill chicken until juices run clear (my husband did this part, so I don't know how long it takes).  Remove from heat and wrap in foil to keep warm.

Serve chicken, tzatsiki sauce, and toppings wrapped in warm Olga bread, pita bread, or flatbread.

Homemade Olga Bread (recipe from my parents)

This is the easiest yeast bread I've ever made.  Once you get the hang of it, the rolling and pan frying goes quickly.  It helps to have two people--one to roll the dough while the other cooks it--but the dough can also be rolled all at once (stack lightly floured dough rounds on a plate, then stack them back on another plate as they're cooked).  The result:  a yeasty, slightly sweet flatbread that beats anything you could ever buy at Meijer.  It tastes best fresh out of the pan, but I suppose it could be frozen (although I've never actually tried doing so).  Yum.

Yield:  16 flatbreads
Time:  1 hour, plus 1 hour for rising

1 cup milk
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp. salt
1 pkg. yeast (2 1/4 tsp.)
1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp. sugar
4 cups flour (divided)
1 egg

Scald milk in a small saucepan by heating it over medium-low, stirring with a whisk, until it reaches 120 F (milk will just barely begin to cook to the bottom of the pan).  Reduce heat to low.  Add honey and butter; whisk until melted.  Remove from heat; cool to lukewarm.

Meanwhile, combine yeast, warm water, and sugar in a small bowl.  Let stand 5 minutes to allow yeast to activate (mixture will become bubbly).  Pour milk mixture into a large mixing bowl.  Add 1 1/2 cups flour and beat well.  Add yeast mixture and egg; beat well again.  Gradually add remaining 2 1/2 cups flour until sticky dough forms (if using a hand mixer, you may need to finish out with a mixing spoon).  Do not add more flour!

Knead for two minutes (I do this right in the bowl).  Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a tea towel; place in a warm place and let rise until double in size, about 1 hour.  Punch down and divide into 16 pieces.  (Roll the dough into a ball, cut in quarters with a sharp knife, roll quarters into balls, then quarter again.)  Roll each piece into a ball.  On a lightly floured surface, roll each ball to 1/8 inch thick (about 7 inches in diameter).

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat.  (I use a regular metal skillet, not a nonstick or cast iron one.)  When skillet is very hot, begin cooking bread (do not add any oil or butter--cook on the dry pan).  Cook each piece for 15 seconds on the first side, then flip with a thin, wide spatula and cook 10 seconds on the second side (yes, you do have to stand there and count).  Serve warm.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Homemade Granola: Two Takes

I'm a big fan of snacking.  When I'm at home, I graze all day.  When I'm at work, I bring food so I don't have to die of starvation between meals.  When I'm getting tired late at night, I decide that it's the perfect time for another snack.  "Hey, honey, let's have some brie on crackers, and then some ice cream with fudge sauce, and then some wine, and then go to bed so we can gain weight while we sleep!"  Okay, so maybe it's not that bad.  But I do like my snacks.  Granola is one of my favorites, because it tastes better than carrot sticks and is still healthier than cheesecake (if it isn't, don't tell me--I don't want to know).

My mom has been making this recipe since I was little.  I'm sure there are a lot of great granola recipes out there, but this is the one I know and always use.  You can vary it a bit based on what's in your pantry; for example, my mom often adds unsalted peanuts, and I don't always add the oat bran.

Crunchy Granola

1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup brown sugar
6 cups oats (quick-cooking or regular)
1 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup oat bran
1/2 cup sunflower seeds (preferably unsalted)
1 cup coconut
1 cup dry milk

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Heat oil, honey, and brown sugar slowly in medium saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved.  Set aside.

In a large bowl, combine remaining ingredients.  Transfer to two or three greased cookie sheets (the higher the rims, the better--I often use the bottom half of a broiling pan as one of my sheets).  Pour oil mixture over oats, dividing it between pans; spread evenly.

Bake for 15-30 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so (granola burns easily, so keep an eye on it).  Let cool.  Store in airtight containers.

(I like to eat my granola dry; my husband eats it with milk.  Whatever makes you happy.)

And... if you like your granola in bar form, I recommend this recipe over at Yammie's Noshery.  These things are delicious, and, like my crunchy granola, can be customized to fit your tastes and pantry stash.  For example, I substituted crushed corn flakes for the Rice Krispies, left out the flax seeds, added a little wheat germ, and cut the chocolate chips (chopped) down to about 1/4 cup (because I didn't feel like opening a new bag).  They turned out great--chewy and peanut butter-y and... um... honey-y?  Just make them.  You need something to snack on five minutes before bed, right?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Chicken and Broccoli Casserole

One of my favorite meals while growing up was this cozy casserole.  I'm pretty sure I requested it for almost every birthday as a child, except for the ones where I wanted chicken a la king.  I loved chicken.  I loved broccoli.  I couldn't think of a better way to eat them than nestled together on a bed of rice, under a delicious creamy sauce.  At least, that's how I'd describe it now.  As a ten-year-old, I probably just called it "yummy."

The original recipe is my grandmother's.  She called it "classic chicken divan," which always made me think of elegant ladies swooning on fancy couches.  (We just called it "chicken and broccoli.")  Somewhere along the way, my mom started adding the rice and some extra seasonings; I've doctored up the recipe a bit myself.  The sauce is a delicious homemade version of cream of chicken soup; it's much better than the stuff that comes in a can.  You can use cooked chicken (yay for Brakebush!) or turkey.  My mom always parboiled chicken leg quarters and tore it into bite-size pieces by hand, which I think is the best option, but this time I used grilled Brakebush chicken and some leftover cooked turkey.  I would recommend tearing up the chicken by hand, rather than cubing it with a knife--it gives you more control over removing bits of fat and gristle.

As for the broccoli, either fresh or frozen works--whatever you use, cook it before adding it to the casserole.  Fresh broccoli can be steamed or microwaved, but don't overcook it, or you will end up with a mushy, unappetizing blob.

Since there are quite a few steps to this recipe (cooking the rice and broccoli, preparing the chicken, making the sauce), it helps to make the individual components ahead of time.  You can also assemble the entire casserole and pop it in the refrigerator until needed; just increase baking time by 5-10 minutes to make sure it heats through.

Chicken and Broccoli Casserole
Time:  60 minutes
Serves 6-8 (but this recipe is easy to halve since everything is from scratch)

2 bunches (about 1 1/4 pounds) fresh broccoli, cut into bite-size pieces (stems included) OR two 10-oz. packages frozen broccoli
2 cups uncooked rice
1 T. olive oil
1/4 onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup half-and-half OR milk (whole or 2%)
1/2 tsp. salt
dash of black pepper, cayenne pepper, and curry powder
4 cups cooked chicken, torn into bite-sized pieces
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, plus extra for topping
dash paprika

Cook rice.  Meanwhile, cook broccoli until just tender-crisp; drain.  In a small pan, combine olive oil, onion, and garlic; saute until tender (do not preheat oil, or the garlic will burn).  Set aside.

In a medium saucepan, melt butter; whisk in flour.  Slowly add broth, whisking until smooth (be careful of the hot steam!).  Cook until thick, stirring occasionally.  Slowly stir in cream; add salt, pepper, cayenne, curry powder, and onion mixture.  Remove from heat.

Spread rice in bottom of a greased 9x13 casserole or pan.  (You can also keep the rice separate and serve it with the casserole at the table.)  Add broccoli to casserole in an even layer.  Pour half of sauce over broccoli.  Top with chicken.  Add cheese to remaining sauce and pour over chicken.  Sprinkle with extra cheese and a dash of paprika.  Bake, uncovered, at 350F for 25 minutes or until golden brown on top.  (If using a metal pan, you can also broil the casserole for the last 5 minutes to brown it.)