Friday, June 29, 2012

Chicken Bacon Ranch Pizza

One of the worst parts about moving is changing jobs.  I've had a lot of different jobs, from my first babysitting gig as an eleven-year-old (don't worry, my parents were next door), to a summer spent opening gallon tubs of potato salad and grape jelly at a youth camp, to a torturous stint in a data entry cubicle.  I've taught piano lessons and dished up Chinese food and sorted through mountains of historic nursing school documents.  Some jobs were great; others were barely worth the paycheck.

Moving usually means you have to leave your job behind.  My last day at work was a week ago.  My job was awesome.  Yeah, it was a library, and I'm a librarian, and I was thrilled to be finally working in my field, even as just a lowly clerk.  And yeah, I was privileged to spend my afternoons with probably the best group of coworkers ever.  But one of the best parts of my job was the food (you knew there had to be some point to this, right?).  My coworkers throw a party for every major life event.  Every time someone has a birthday, there's a party.  Every time someone has a baby, there's a shower.  And we're not talking stale chips and dip here.  These are all-out feasts with salads and casseroles and five kinds of dessert.  The library hosts an annual "edible book festival" for the school and the community that celebrates books and--you guessed it--food.  On Administrative Professionals Day, half the staff brings in treats to share, because "we're all administrative professionals, right?"  The culinary arts students bring in samples of their masterpieces throughout the school year.  There are almost always donuts and candy and random treats in the staff work room.  And I was sent off with a going-away party to rival all others.  It's a miracle they didn't have to roll me out of there.

One of the repeat foods at our parties (besides Carol's brownies and Ward's artichoke casserole) was a deliciously fattening chicken bacon ranch pizza.  If you live in Fort Wayne, you should visit MJ's and try one.  If you don't, you can still make it at home--and this is a great use of that Brakebush chicken in the back of your freezer!  I haven't given any amounts for the ingredients--just use what looks good, and don't skimp on the cheese.

Chicken Bacon Ranch Pizza

Crust for one 12" to 14" pizza (follow my directions here, or use your favorite)
Bottled ranch dressing
Mozzarella cheese
Red or white onion, diced and sauteed in olive oil until tender
Cooked plain chicken, diced
Cooked bacon, crumbled (or real bacon bits)

Spread a thin layer of ranch dressing on unbaked crust, to within about 1/2" of the edge.  Layer remaining ingredients on crust in order listed.  Bake according to crust directions, or until cheese is melted.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tiramisu "Petit Fours"

I've had more than a couple cooking mishaps lately.  One wasn't completely my fault, but the rest, um, were.  Usually when I get into a cooking funk, I go back to making a few recipes that I know will turn out.  It's my way of reminding myself that I can actually read a recipe.  After all, nothing feels better than knowing that I can cook boxed macaroni and cheese like nobody's business.  Grilled cheese sandwiches are a good confidence-booster, too.

This time, though, I decided to risk it and try a new recipe.  One that involved baking, no less.  And it actually worked!  (Well, I haven't actually served it to anyone yet, but my own quality-control tests have confirmed that this is, indeed, a recipe worth keeping.)  Unfortunately, these tasty little morsels aren't very co-op friendly.  They're a bit on the pricey side, and you'll probably spend half the day making them.  And they aren't technically petit fours or tiramisu.  But they're pretty to look at and equally delicious--perfect for an open house, reception, or, in this case, an ordination dinner.

Since I followed the recipes (yes, I used more than one) pretty closely, I'm just going to list the links and let you have at it.  I made a few substitutions for hard-to-find ingredients, but I followed the techniques as written and didn't have any major difficulties.  If you read everything ahead of time and gather all the ingredients before you begin, these mini tiramisus will be a piece of cake (ha, ha).  As for me, I think the hardest part will be transporting these things in my car.

Tiramisu "Petit Fours"
Yield:  90-100
Time:  Um... reserve your whole morning

Start with this blog post, which shows you how to modify a tiramisu cake recipe into bite-size servings.  Follow those directions to assemble your petit fours.  The only change I made was substituting grated semisweet chocolate (1/2 cup) for the mini chocolate chips, although I did use mini chips as a garnish.

For the recipe itself, follow the instructions here.  I used a hand mixer without any trouble--just make sure you add the ingredients exactly as directed.  Don't forget to line your 9x13 pans with wax or parchment paper after buttering and flouring them--you'll have a much easier time removing the cakes.  If you can't find instant espresso powder, substitute an equal amount of regular instant coffee granules--just whirl it in a food processor to make it easier to dissolve.  Mascarpone is another difficult-to-find ingredient; you can substitute ricotta cheese or use the simple recipe here (you only need to make half).

Monday, June 18, 2012

Creamy Asparagus Penne

You know it's hot when your eyelids start sweating.  Everything's sort of in a haze.  Even the flies know better than to attempt productivity.  And you just know that if you try to turn on the oven, the result will be instant vaporization.  Not that it matters--can you think of anything less appetizing on a hot summer day than chicken pot pie?  Nope.  Meatloaf?  I can almost feel myself melting.

Well, this creamy pasta recipe still requires the use of the stovetop, but it's the best I can do.  I'm still not ready to get out the crock pot after my last attempt.  And this is light and fresh and springy.  (Hopefully it's not too late to find some decent asparagus out there.)  Pair this with a nice salad or side dish for a cool summer meal, or toss in some cooked chicken or crumbled bacon to beef it up a little.  You could also stir in a cup or two of chopped fresh spinach for extra flavor.

I originally made this recipe as found here, but I decided the lemon was a little too strong.  What follows is my version, with some optional add-ins.  I'm still learning how to make cream sauces, so if you have a better recipe, feel free to use it instead (and don't forget to send it my way!).

Creamy Asparagus Penne
Serves 4
Time:  30-35 minutes

8 ounces penne (I used whole-wheat)
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and cut into 3/4-inch pieces (about 1 pound)
1 1/2 cups milk (whole or 2%)
4 tsp. whole-grain mustard
4 tsp. flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp. olive oil
3 T. minced garlic (3-4 large cloves)
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 cups chopped fresh spinach (optional)
1 cup chopped cooked chicken OR 1/4 cup chopped cooked bacon (optional)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  Add pasta and cook for 3 minutes less than the package directions.  Add asparagus and continue cooking until pasta and asparagus are just tender, 3 minutes more.  Drain and return to pot.

Meanwhile, whisk milk, mustard, flour, salt, and pepper in a medium bowl.  Set aside.  Heat oil and garlic together in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 30-60 seconds.  Whisk in the milk mixture.  Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened, 1-2 minutes.

Stir sauce into pasta and asparagus.  Cook over medium-high heat, stirring, until the sauce is thick, creamy, and coats and pasta, 1-2 minutes.  Stir in 1/4 cup Parmesan.  Toss with spinach and chicken or bacon, if desired.  Sprinkle individual portions with remaining Parmesan.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Adventures in Texas Barbecue

One of my favorite parts about our vicarage year in Texas was the barbecue.  I speak as a lifelong Northerner when I say that Northerners know nothing about barbecue.  Up here, we slather a pile of chicken or shredded pork in sauce and call it "barbecue."  Or we cook brats on the grill and say we're "barbecuing."  Texas barbecue has nothing to do with sauce (or a grill, really) and everything to do with a long, slow bask in a smoker.  The sauce is an extra.  They serve it on the side, along with pickles, onions, jalapenos, and two slices of bread.  Those things are okay, but the important part is the meat--huge slabs of brisket and ribs and the best sausages you'll ever devour.  It's the food of... well... Texans.

Our favorite local barbecue joint was a place called Vitek's BBQ, known as the "home of the Gut Pak."  We ate at picnic tables outside in the sweltering heat, up to our elbows in half-racks of ribs and mounds of chopped beef, the screen door slapping behind us as men in cowboy boots and Texas drawls strolled out with their Styrofoam clamshells of meat and coleslaw.  You can smoke all the mesquite chips you want, but if you want real live Texas barbecue, you really just have to go down there.


The other day, I found a delicious-looking recipe for Slow Cooker Texas Pulled Pork.  I was a little skeptical about the "Texas" part, especially since one of the main ingredients was barbecue sauce, but I had a ton of pork and was suddenly inspired to start my search for the best pulled pork recipe ever.  Plus, my lonely little slow cooker almost never comes out of the cupboard, due to my suspicion toward all things crock pot, and I figured it was high time I put that thing to use on a foolproof recipe.

Someone had commented on the recipe that 24 hours on low made a beautiful, melt-in-your-mouth concoction of barbecue-y goodness, so I started the pork before bed.  Plus, I was using pork chops, not a roast, so I figured the tougher cut would benefit from a low, slow cook time.  We woke up the next morning to a mouth-watering aroma; the pork was bubbling happily and already so tender I could barely turn it.  All day I dreamed about the wonderful sandwiches that awaited our ravenous dinnertime appetites.

We came home to this:

In case the poor photo quality might have confused you, this is a very gross pot of very overcooked, dry pork chunks sitting in grease.  As my husband put it, the pulled pork was perfect--at some point around lunchtime when we were both gone.  By the time we got home, however, it was anything but.

Oh, and did I mention it was our anniversary?  We ended up feasting sumptuously on a Little Caesar's Hot-N-Ready pizza and some sort of amazing cheese-encrusted and butter-drenched bread.  (Don't worry; our real anniversary plans aren't until this weekend anyway.  Still.  It's the principle of the thing.)

I think I'm just going to leave barbecue to the Texans.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Chicken, Swiss, and Mushroom Sandwiches

Melty, bubbly Swiss cheese meets tender, sauteed mushrooms and onions in these fast and easy chicken sandwiches.  Oops.  For a minute there I thought I was writing a cookbook.  Let's try that again.  These sandwiches are great, and you should make them.

(Photos courtesy of my awesome brother.)

Oh, and they really are bubbly and melty and tender and full of chicken-y goodness.

Chicken, Swiss, and Mushroom Sandwiches (from this recipe)
Time:  30 minutes
Serves:  4

12 ounces boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch strips
1 envelope Italian or Caesar salad dressing mix
4 large sandwich rolls or buns (submarine, onion, Kaiser, etc.), split
1-2 T. butter
1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 cup sliced red onion
2 T. olive oil
4 slices Swiss cheese

In a large bowl, sprinkle chicken with salad dressing mix.  Set aside.

Melt butter in a large skillet, then toast cut sides of rolls in butter until golden brown; set aside.  In the same skillet, sauté mushrooms and onions in oil for 3 minutes.  Add chicken; sauté for 6 minutes or until chicken is no longer pink.

Spoon mixture onto roll bottoms; top with cheese.  Broil for 4 minutes or until cheese is melted.  Replace tops.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Copycat Chipotle Barbacoa Beef with Cilantro Lime Rice

I can't think of a more delicious bundle of goodness than a giant Chipotle burrito, packed to the gills with barbacoa beef, black beans, corn salsa, and that most wonderful of concoctions--cilantro lime rice.  I don't think I will ever tire of biting into a burrito the size of my head.  It's almost as great as digging through the treasures hidden inside like some sort of excavator.

Back to reality.  There are no Chipotles in North Dakota.  (There are no Aldis either.  You would think that a business with locations in Hungary and Australia could set up a nice little store in Fargo.  Not.)  I have brainstormed a list of potential solutions to this tragic problem:  1) eat at Chipotle every day for the next month, in hopes that I will somehow sate any future cravings all at once; 2) buy a lifetime supply of Chipotle barbacoa burritos and bring them to North Dakota with me; or 3) invent my own version of Chipotle that tastes awesome and doesn't cost $8 a pop.

I went with the last one.  Shipping a freezer-ful of burritos across the country could be a logistical nightmare.

Copycat Chipotle Barbacoa Beef with Cilantro Lime Rice
Time:  Begin at least 8 hours ahead

Filling options:
Black beans, drained, rinsed, and heated
Cooked sweet corn, cut from the cob and heated (leftover grilled corn is my favorite)
Tomato, diced
Lettuce, finely chopped
Cheddar or Mexican-blend cheese, shredded
Sour cream
Guacamole (or thinly sliced avocado)
Barbacoa beef (see below)
Cilantro lime rice (see below)

Another option is corn salsa with lime (combines black beans, corn, tomatoes, and onion with seasonings).  I haven't tried it yet, but it looks good!

Flour tortillas (8-inch or burrito-size)

Slow-Cooker Barbacoa Beef (from this recipe)
While this doesn't taste exactly like the Chipotle version, it is pretty tasty.  I haven't made any major changes to the original recipe--mostly I cut down the amounts to make a smaller recipe.  I also think that there are much better uses for beef brisket, so I used an arm roast that I found at the co-op months ago.  Any inexpensive roast will do.  If you go with a tougher cut of meat, however, you will need to cook it "low and slow."  I found that the method of cooking on high then on warm was not enough to break down the meat fibers.

2 chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (from a can), chopped, plus 2 T. of the sauce
1/2 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/2 red onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
5-6 large garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 dry bay leaves
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
juice of 2 limes
1/4 cup cider vinegar
3 to 4 pound beef roast (see note above), excess fat removed
2 to 3 cups beef or chicken stock

In a food processor, pulse together chipotle peppers and sauce, cilantro, red onion, and garlic. Combine with clove, cumin, salt, lime juice, and cider vinegar in the insert of a slow cooker. Place the beef on top (cut it into pieces if doesn't fit). Add stock to cover the meat and place bay leaves on top.

Cook on low for at least 6 to 8 hours.

Remove meat from slow cooker and place on rimmed baking sheet. Use two forks to pull the meat apart. Place shredded beef in large bowl and ladle cooking liquid over the top, until it is saturated but not soupy.

The remaining liquid can be frozen for use in other recipes.  The meat itself also freezes well (for tips on making an extra-large batch, see the original recipe).

Cilantro Lime Rice
I roughly followed the recipe here, but modified it for use in my rice cooker.  Whatever method you use to cook the rice, just toss it with the other ingredients and serve hot.

1 cup white or basmati rice, cooked with 2 cups water and 1 tsp. salt
2-3 tsp. lime juice
3 T. fresh chopped cilantro
2-3 tsp. vegetable oil