Cut. Chop. Dice. Sharpening my knife Skills.

My New Year’s Resolution was to do more focused things to accomplish my food related goals.  Take classes, strengthen my network, identify my strong suits, learn, and sharpen my skills.  So what better way to kick off 2016 than with a Basic Knife Skills class?  (insert sound effect of knife sharpening) 

I’m fortunate to live very close to the Loretta Paganini School of Cooking and ICASI, or International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute.  The pair provide incredible resources for both the recreational cook and the professional chef.  I’ve attended several classes at the school before, but all were recipe based and themed, like “A Night in Tuscany,” “Phyllo Baking,” etc.  This time around it was more skills based, and I was eager to get after it.

knife skills carrot demo

Our class of about 15 was lead by Chef Tim McCoy, a guy who’s taught there for just as many years and who spoke about cutting his teeth at a Japanese restaurant.  Can you imagine how much cutting and dicing goes on in the prep kitchen of a place like that?  Instant credibility.

McCoy started with the bare bones basics, like how to stand when cutting (where to place your feet, and best posture) and of course, how to hold the knife.  Immediately I began to liken this process to golf, tweaking my stance, grip and follow through to better my game.  And that analogy stuck with me throughout the evening, as I fought years’ worth of muscle memory and tried to correct what I’d been doing wrong for years…sub-par grip and lack of follow through.

knife skills carrots

After a series of demos, McCoy tasked us students with cutting a couple of carrots-julienne cut, dice, brunoise, cube.  I moved my knife much slower that usual, while even holding the vegetables differently than I have my whole life, with that “claw” grip, so as not to expose my fingertips to potential cuts, but only my knuckles.  Chef McCoy quipped you can still cut your knuckles, but there are fewer nerves there and less blood.  Good takeaway.  I felt my middle finger start to blister and knew I was doing something wrong…adjusted and kept going.  The food nerd in me was excited about doing this right.  Finally. Speed, and consistency would come along eventually, right?

Next we moved on to dicing tomatoes, and learned the chiffonade, technique for leafy greens.  Then it was the skill that brought tears to many eyes in the room…dicing the dreaded onion.

knife skills onions

I watched my fellow students’ minds being blown…as they learned and applied the proper technique that will save them enormous amounts of time and aggravation in the kitchen.

When none of the veggies were whole any longer, we set about making dinner for ourselves, splitting up into teams to tackle five recipes that required us to apply our new knife skills.

My team prepared a crisp antipasto salad and a fresh angel hair pasta primavera.

The other students made a creamy garden vegetable chowder to start, plus a tender chicken cacciatore and mixed fruit mini strudel for a  sweet finish.

I left the class in a state of mind that I like-inspired.  Now, I’m ready to tackle a new year…and a pile full of onions too! #bringiton

Tailgate Soup: Turn Sunday’s Smorgasbord into a Monday Night Football Feast

When your favorite football team is as terrible as ours, it’s best to make tailgating the “main event” of game day.  So we had a dozen or so people over for an at-home tailgate party before watching the Browns game.  After everyone went home, and the dishes were done, it was time to assess the leftovers.

tailgate soup-montage pic

Hmmm….a couple of brats, a ton of baked beans, the remnants of a veggie tray, burger fixins’ and a lot of Bloody Mary supplies.  (no beer..that we drank every last drop of to drown our sorrows)

tailgate soup-baked bean

Given the volume of baked beans which are not something we eat a lot of in our house…I decided to incorporate those into a soup because I know my daughter, Julia, will slurp it up!  Go time.

tailgate soup-julia

I started by cutting up two slices of peppered bacon (from the very elaborate Bloody Mary bar a guest came with!) Once I fried those up in a small stock pot, I added some chopped onions (red and white, but you could use whatever you’ve got) leftover from the burger toppings platter, and let those soften.  To that I added chopped celery and carrot (probably the equivalent of one carrot and one stalk of celery) and cooked on a medium high until those too were soft (just 3-4 minutes).

tailgate soup-veggies

(I added corn to this original batch because I had some around and thought it would be good for color.  I think it enhanced the soup, but it’s not necessary)

tailgate soup-saute

I sliced up one bratwurst into bite sized pieces and dumped that in to the mixture, along with 2 cups of beef broth.  Once that was brought to a boil, I added 1 cup of baked beans, and 1/2 cup of Bloody Mary mix.  Given the contents (peppered bacon, seasoned beans, and the drink mix) I went easy on the salt and pepper, but do it to your taste.  I also added dash of hot sauce.

tailgate soup-ladle

Let that magic simmer for about 25 minutes and you’ve got yourself a soup that will fill your belly and keep you satisfied through Monday Night Football.

Sisters Pasta Night: Homemade Mushroom Ravioli with Brown Butter and Sage

In colleges, my sister studied abroad in Siena, Italy.  She could barely put two sentences of Italian together at the end of her experience…she mostly studied wine and Italian men.  But she came home with a killer hand-made pasta recipe.  And while she might call me on a weekly basis for meal suggestions, and help with recipe substitutions, she is still the authority in the family on home-made pasta dough.  It’s something we do together whenever she is in town. 

For this round I was ready to make a ton of pasta, and freeze it.  And I wanted to use the bountiful herb garden I was “passively cultivating.”  It’s a real jungle back there because I can’t seem to find the time to maintain it.

herb-garden

I sifted through the hip-high cilantro and lettuce plants, to snip bunches of fresh parsley, chives, sage, and basil.

garden-herbs

I knew we’d need marinara sauce for all this fresh pasta too, so I put a pot of that on as well.  Working loosely off a recipe I learned at a class at The Loretta Paganini School of Cooking, I used garlic and onion, grated celery and carrot, whole peeled tomatoes, a pinch of crushed red pepper, salt and pepper, and lots of the fresh parsley and basil.

marinara-sauce

While that simmered, we got to work on the first dough.  The ingredients are few…it’s the technique that’s still tough for me.

3 c. flour, unbleached

3 large eggs

1/4 c. dry white wine

1 tsp. salt

Water or extra flour, if needed

Lexi-making-pasta

You start by creating a “mound” with your flour, and make a deep well.  Meanwhile crack the eggs in a bowl and break the yolks up with a fork, then add the wine and salt to the eggs.  Carefully pour the egg mixture into the well.  Then, using a fork, slowly bring the flour in to the egg mixture.  When the flour is totally absorbed, begin kneading by hand for 20 min…no shortcuts!  Add water if it seems dry, or sprinkle more flour if it’s too wet.  Gather it in a ball and place it in a mixing bowl, covered with plastic wrap, to rest for 30 min…no shortcuts there either.

The first batch was dinner that night: a classic fettuccine with marinara.  We made a second batch of dough for me to make ravioli with.  I whipped up the filling while Lexi, and my eager daughters, kneaded.

Julia-making-pasta     Natalie-making-pasta

I wanted to use all that beautiful sage.  So I sautéed some mushrooms in olive oil, with garlic and shallots.  Then I added chopped sage, and a drizzle of truffle oil.  I mixed that with some ricotta, salt and pepper, and more truffle oil and let it cool while we rolled the dough.

Natalie-rolling-dough

First we cut the fettuccine, as we’ve done every time before.  You start on the widest setting, cranking that pasta machine to gradually reduce the width until the dough is the desired thickness, then cut it. (angel hair, linguine, fettuccine, etc.)  We sprinkled a tablecloth with flour and let it dry while we moved on to the delicate ravioli.

homemade-pasta

For those, we rolled the dough out, same as before.  Then we laid the sheets of pasta over my grandmother’s old ravioli plates.  I put a generous teaspoon of the filling in each pouch.

ravioli filling

Then we placed a second sheet on top, and used a rolling-pin (and the back of a spoon) to “stamp” or cut them.  We tore off the excess around the edges then carefully popped out each delicate little ravioli.

Ravioli-trays

To be honest, these usually don’t turn out so well for me…but these looked beautiful!!

Last round of dough was experimental.  I chopped up a ton of fresh chives and we incorporated that into the dough during the kneading process.  Toss this pasta with a little butter and you’ve got something pretty spectacular.

pasta-with-chives

There was salted water boiling on the stove…time to taste the fruits of our labor!  First course was the fettuccine and marinara.  It didn’t disappoint.  While we poured a second (or fourth?) glass of wine, I browned some butter and added more chopped sage, plus seasoning.  When the ravioli were cooked through in the water, I drained them and added them to the saute pan to brown them up.  Sprinkle some grated cheese on top. Perfection.

Julia-in-an-apron

I had a full heart and a full belly at the end of the evening.  It was so much fun for my girls to share in a special sisters pasta night!  I hope they carry on the tradition.

Play it again, pork: Open-faced BBQ Sandwich on Texas Toast

I can’t resist a pulled pork sandwich when I see it on the menu at a BBQ joint (or smoked brisket, for that matter) It reminds me of my time in Texas.  So when I was faced with the challenge of what to make with leftover pork roast, my former Lone-Star self knew what to do.  Let’s pull this pork!

pork roast

I was working with a couple pounds of pork that I originally roasted with a brown mustard, brown sugar, garlic and rosemary glaze.  I thought these flavors would lend themselves very easily to a BBQ version.

pulled pork roast

I grabbed a couple of forks and tore into the pork that was leftover after yesterday’s dinner.  I patiently pulled the remaining meat apart until I had several cups of stringy chunks.  Then I started looking around for how I’d finish off the dish.

bbq pulled pork

I found a bottle of Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey Barbecue Sauce and some Mezzetta jalapeno slices.  That’s the ticket!  If I was feeling particularly ambitious, I would’ve made my own sauce…but it’s a weekday here, people.  I added about half a cup of the sauce and a couple tablespoons of jalapeno slices to the pulled pork and mixed it well.

Another element that you can’t leave out of a genuine pulled pork sandwich: coleslaw.  It’s the cool, creamy “Ying” to the tangy “Yang” of the barbecue pork.  Luckily, I had a brand new bag of shredded cabbage and carrots in the fridge, in anticipation of Fish Fry Friday (it’s Lent, after all)

cole slaw

So I mixed some coleslaw dressing, with a little mayo, white wine vinegar and celery seed.  Mix this to your taste.  I think the dressing is way too sweet alone, so I add the vinegar, but it’s not for everybody.  I tossed in the cabbage/carrot mix and let this sit for a couple hours.

Now-what about a “vessel” for my pulled pork?  Didn’t have any buns around, or bread that would hold up to the heaping pile of pork I planned to dish up on my plate.  What I did have was several boxes of Pepperidge Farm Texas Toast (thanks to a BOGO free deal at the grocery store over the weekend).  This would work if I went the “open-faced pulled pork sandwich” route.  No complaints here!

I grabbed a jar of pickle slices and some sweet potato fries to serve on the side, perfect accompaniments.  So I fired up the oven to bake the Texas toast, and fries…and heat up my pulled pork.  Once all three elements were heated/baked to my satisfaction, it was “construction time.”  I placed a pair of Texas toasts on the plate, then a mountain of pulled pork (and some additional barbecue sauce) and a generous scoop of coleslaw on each.

pulled pork on texas toast 2

The smoky, sweet heat of the pulled pork, paired with the creamy, crunchy slaw and the crispy garlic toast…I was transported back to the land of rattlesnakes and rhinestones!  This is a knife and fork kinda sandwich, ya’ll.  Giddyup.    

Sweet and Sour “Book Ends”

Who doesn’t have a hankerin’ for Chinese food on the regular?  And Lord knows there’s usually leftovers after a night of Chinese take-out.  But I’m flipping the script and turning leftovers into Chinese!  

pork book ends

I scooped up a BOGO deal for pork sirloin roast at the grocery store this week and made it with an herb rub that included orange zest for my initial dish.  So when I searched my mental catalog for things to do with “book ends” of the roast, I thought of trying to make a sweet and sour sauce to incorporate with the leftover pork and some veggies.  Let’s do this.

sweet and sour supplies

I searched around the web to see exactly what goes into various varieties of sweet and sour sauces, and determined that I had what I needed already in house to cobble something together.  Bonus!  I set aside some rice wine vinegar, soy sauce, corn starch, brown sugar and pineapple juice.  Some people use ketchup, but I wasn’t in the mood for that “nuclear orange” color you usually see on your sweet and sour pork/chicken, so I decided to go with the pineapple juice from the canned pineapple chunks I had in the pantry.

sweet and sour sauce

I put a cup of pineapple juice, a tablespoon of soy sauce, some water, a hefty portion of brown sugar (like a quarter cup), and 3 tablespoons of rice wine vinegar.  Once I stirred that around, I added roughly 3 tablespoons of corn starch to the mix and kept it at medium heat, stirring it consistently until it thickened up.

sweet and sour veggies

Next, I chopped up some green pepper, onion, celery and pineapple…the “usual suspects” of a sweet and sour combo plates.  I also used up the last of my frozen snow peas (not enough to serve as a side dish, but just enough to supplement this main course)

I’m also pretty savvy at an at-home version of fried rice, so I prepped those elements.  I like to cook brown rice in broth in stead of water.  In a separate pan, I sauted garlic and onion, then add peas and chopped carrots (and today, mushrooms since I had a couple ounces on hand).  I add the cooked rice, and mix, then create a hole in the middle of the pan, put about a tablespoon of oil (canola or vegetable) and fry an egg.

fried rice

Once that’s cooking pretty good, I mince it up in the pan and stir everything together, then add soy sauce to taste.  It’s not an exact process, but a method I mess with pretty much every time I make this.

Next step: cook the veggies for the sweet and sour.  I added some oil to a pan, and cooked then until just soft, then poured in the sweet and sour sauce I made.  After a few minutes, I tossed in the chopped leftover pork and the pineapple.

sweet and sour veggies in sauce

I tasted the mixture and decided it need a little bit of sauce.  Then, it was right where I wanted it!.  Time to eat.  I put a bed of fried rice in a deep bowl then piled on a heaping portion of the “sweet and sour book ends” for a pretty sweet dish.

Stone Soup

Seems like a soup-y kind of Sunday.  The snow hasn’t stopped falling all day and I want a warm belly full of something hearty.  As I usually do over the weekend, I cook ahead to make weekday evenings a little more relaxing.  After poaching a head of cabbage for stuffed cabbage, I realized I had half of it left, and hated to just toss it.  I poked around the pantry and fridge and thought of the children’s book, Stone Soup.  The lesson it leaves you with: make soup with what you’ve got.  Pretty soon I had a pile of veggies, (combination of canned, frozen and fresh) that were scraps and excess from other recipes, plus things I keep in the house for precisely this kind of occasion.

stone soup veggies

I started by chopping some garlic, onion and celery and sauteed that in a big pot with some hot oil.  Once those softened I added some carrots.

stone soup sauteed veggies

Found half a yellow zucchini and some kale in the vegetable drawer…why not?  Then I tossed in some frozen peas and canned corn.  I eyeballed the amounts.  You can’t really screw up soup, right?!  I also reached for whatever canned tomato product I had in the pantry.  In this case, it was crushed tomatoes.  I put about a cup of that in and a full carton of chicken broth and some water.  After I seasoned it, I covered it and brought it to a boil.  Then I reduced the heat and let it simmer for about 30 min.

ladle of stone soup

Since the cabbage was already cooked, I decided to add that last so it wouldn’t break down in the soup.

cabbage

As luck would have it there were some alphabet noodles in the cupboard too.  Sounds like this truly would be a literary inspired soup.  The letters were the final touch.

Tasty, hearty, healthy and cheap.  A lot better for the sodium levels and the wallet than a canned soup.  I’m already thinking about a corn chowder using the rest of the canned corn, and the potatoes sitting on my counter.  Maybe next Sunday.  Chances are, it’ll be damn cold, and snowy…again.  

Risotto Redux

When my husband bites into something he really likes, he often uses a playful term to describe it: “tastycakes.”  I believe I’ve just created actual “tastycakes.”  You be the judge.   I’ve asked those close to me, and those of you  following me to send me a challenge.  What are some of the leftovers you often have lingering around your house, that you’d like to give a “Cheftovers” makeover to?  My sister is this week’s challenger.  The subject: leftover risotto.

leftover risott

We like to make a lot of risotto in my family.  It’s a great side in its simplest form, and it’s a great canvas for other ingredients (often bits and pieces of excess ingredients from other dishes like asparagus, artichokes or spinach) that can help boost it up to an entree.  It takes time and attention, and arborio rice is much more expensive than white or brown rice.  For those reasons, it’s a shame to toss anything not eaten.

Whenever I see arancini on a menu, I can’t resist.  They’re rice balls (often with a cheesy center)  lightly breaded and fried, and served with a marinara…kinda like rice croquettes.  I knew I wanted to go this direction.  Problem is, I don’t have a fryer, which is necessary to get that even golden brown finish around the entire thing.  So I decided to adjust the shape for easier execution.  Just smoosh ’em down and call them risotto cakes!  I also remembered a half a bag of teeny tiny shrimp I had waiting in the freezer (the kind you’d use to make shrimp salad)  Now…I was cookin’!

start of marinara

I started on a quick marinara.  I chopped up some garlic, and onion and let those sweat it out in some olive oil while I finely diced up a stalk of celery and a carrot.  (for best results, you should really grate those both…but to be honest, I was feeling a bit lazy, so I decided to get past the slightly chunkier texture at the end to avoid that tedious step)  I allowed the veggies to cook down and soften, making sure to season them with salt and pepper.  Then I reached for the other half of a large can of crushed tomatoes I had in the fridge (from a recipe earlier in the week) as well as some tomato paste (from the same dish).  I added those, and a generous dash of crushed red pepper to give it some kick.  If I had fresh basil around, I would’ve used it here too.  But since I didn’t, I settled for dry herbs instead.  Since I was winging it, I stirred it and tasted it frequently, adding salt and water until it had the consistency and flavor I was looking for.  In the end, I actually ran it through a food processor to get a smoother texture.

marinar

Then I got to work on the risotto cakes.  To the leftover risotto, I added about a cup of chopped tiny shrimp, a heaping tablespoon of parsley, an egg and a little bit of breadcrumbs (until the mixture wasn’t “wet” anymore).  I didn’t season them too much, as the risotto already had been upon first preparation (with s/p, shallots and garlic).  I took about two tablespoons of the mixture and rolled it into a ball, then coated it in more breadcrumbs.  I placed them on a cookie sheet with parchment paper, then smashed them down until they looked more like crab cakes than meatballs.  I then froze them to prevent them from falling apart in the frying pan.

risotto cakes

When I was ready to cook them, I just defrosted them in the refrigerator to defrost, than pan fried them, just like I would a crab cake.  I warmed the marinara and served it on the side.  Tastycakes, indeed.

What’s next?  Give me something good to work with!  I’m ready.  Send pics or ideas and I’ll get cooking.

 

“Shhhepherds Pie” As in “shhh, don’t tell anybody it’s made with leftovers,” Shepherd’s Pie

This is about the time of the holiday season when I’m just not in the mood to make much of anything for weekday meals.  My kitchen creativity is tapped out on Christmas cookies and multiple rounds holiday party appetizers I have to prepare.  During this spell, meatloaf is one of the go-to dinners I make and have ready for a work night meal.  With only two adults in our house who sit down to eat a proper portion, that means leftovers.  I took a long look at the hunk of meatloaf remaining, and the potatoes I found still lingering from a crock pot meal I’d made earlier in the week…and I decided to try something I’d never made before….Shepherd’s Pie.    

leftover meatloaf

I started by locating and chopping some veggies I’d use to supplement the meat: carrots, onions, and some baby bella mushrooms.

chopped veggies

I also grabbed some frozen peas, something I always have around (see my Pantry Must-Haves post)  I sauteed those, then added the meatloaf and broke it up in the pan, only adding a little seasoning to the veggies as the meat had already been seasoned.

sauteed veggies and meat

From there I went to work on the topping, a mashed potato of sorts.  Now, because I have never made shepherd’s pie before, I did consult a couple of recipes to make sure I was on the right track, and I was.  So I took the leftover cooked potatoes from my previous dish, and mixed those up with some sour cream and heavy cream (also leftover from a recipe.  It seems that recipes always call for half a cup of the stuff, when the smallest carton usually contains about a cup)  I suppose you could use milk here too.  I used a hand mixer to get it nice and smooth and seasoned it with salt and pepper.

shepherds pie potatoes

The last component I needed to figure out was the gravy.  So I went with what I know.  Start with some butter, whisk in some flour, then I added beef broth and, after consulting with some other shepherd’s pie recipes, I added a little bit of Worcestershire sauce and some pepper.  I let all those elements hang out until I like the consistency, took a taste….and I was satisfied.  I mixed the meat and veggies with the gravy and poured portions into some medium sized ramekins.  Since I was dealing with leftover portions of both the meat and the potatoes, there wasn’t enough for the traditional portion in a baking dish.  But I’ve found these ramekins I bought recently have been very useful in situations like this.

shepherds pie set up

I spread the whipped potatoes on top of the meat/veggies/gravy and sprinkled a little paprika on there for color.  Since everything was cooked already and the portions were not terribly big, I decided to broil them on high until the top looked golden brown.  But if you were making these ahead and were refrigerating them, I would bring them up to room temp, or throw them in the oven first before broiling so it’s warm throughout.

I got four portions of “Shhhheperd’s Pie” from only about a 3-4 inch slice of meatloaf and a handful of leftover potatoes.  This will surely become a new “go-to” meal with any sort of leftover ground meat.  

Please share some of your short-cuts and secrets to getting dinner on the table during the busiest time of year.  I could use them!