Working Mom Gourmet: Weeknight Dinner Solutions

Now that the school supplies are purchased and orientations under our belts, it’s time to settle into to this school year’s weekday routine. And for most people that means juggling carpools, sports practices and games, piano lessons and lots of homework. Oh yeah, you gotta squeeze in dinner somewhere too.

Resist the urge to hit the drive thru, order take out or give in to expensive pre-made or frozen dinners. We almost never do any of those things in my house and I am a pretty busy gal. My friends are convinced I’m a vampire because of all I manage to get accomplished.

A couple of followers have asked for my suggestions for easy weeknight meals with little prep or cook time.  Happy to share!

pesto.jpg

Presto, pesto!  Make a batch now, while the basil is abundant and fresh. Freeze it in ice cube trays or small containers for use when you need it.

Pasta is the obvious pairing with pesto. Choose a quick cooking pasta like angel hair to get dinner on the table faster.  Add the pesto to cooked pasta with olive oil, and toss, and you’re in business.

Grill some chicken ahead of time, or add in some quick cooking shrimp for a protein add-in for the pasta. For a creamy option, add a tablespoon or cream cheese or goat cheese to the pesto mixture. So delish!   If you’re over (or off) pasta, pesto is GREAT on zucchini noodles. Or you can also spread it or chicken, fish or shrimp too, for an herbaceous baked protein.

See below for my go-to basil pesto recipe (I use almonds instead of pine nuts because those are too expensive, plus I always have this super food around). I also like to mix it up and use walnuts for a variety, and I often make parsley, mint or cilantro pesto which is incredible on fish.

For a dinner that’s super kid friendly and fun for both them and adults, try my walking turkey Frito pie. (see previous post, A Portable Picnic, for this recipe)  You can always chop your veggies and cook the rice for build-your-own stir fry bowls the night before. 

Or mix up fresh pizza dough in the morning or the night before (so cheap to make and uses so few ingredients). The dough will be perfect by dinner time.  I use Leanne Brown’s recipe from her book, Good and Cheap.  Getting the kids involved in topping their own pizza always ensures they’re more likely to eat it!  It’s not rocket science, but it is science.  It’s proven!!  Crank up your oven to 500 and that ‘za will be ready in 10 minutes.

pizza

Cut down on cook time for family-friendly favorites like meatloaf, tuna noodle and broccoli, cheese and rice casseroles, pot pie or baked mac n cheese, by portioning them out into ramekins, or cupcake tins. Adults can control their portions better and cook time is cut in half! My kids always get a kick out of eating things “just their size” too.

For tonight’s dinner, I sneaked in some finely chopped zucchini and kale into mini meatloaves for a helping of greens that my children (and husband) won’t even know they are eating. Pillsbury has a really easy crescent roll mini pot pie recipe that I like, too.

Another favorite among my kids is carrot soup. It’s colorful, sweet and savory. Plus it keeps well so you can make all, or portions of it, ahead of time. I usually make it on the stove top with lots of fresh shaved ginger. But I had a bunch of HUGE carrots and some red/yellow peppers from the farmers market so I decided to roast them!  (recipe follows)

If you’re a fan of Mexican food, make baked taquitos.  I like to mix up shredded leftover chicken, cheese, rice and/or beans, and any veggies I have hanging around.  Put a spoonful of the mixture in a tortilla and roll them up tightly.  Place them in a baking pan seam side down and bake at 350 until they’re just barely browned. It’ll take no time at all!  You can dip them in salsa, guac or sour cream. Great way to use leftovers and not repeat taco night!

I always feel better when we have dinner together, especially one that I made myself.  And when it doesn’t take me all night, I’m happy.  We all know, when mama’s happy….

Roasted Carrot and Pepper Soup:

3 large carrots, peeled
1/4 of a red onion
1/2 a red or yellow pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled
3-4 sprigs of thyme
Olive oil
Salt/pepper
1 1/2 c. vegetable or chicken stock
Heavy cream or half and half (optional)

Cut the veggies into similar sized pieces, about one inch chunks so they will roar evenly.
Line a baking sheet with foil and preheat oven to 400*.
Drizzle veggies, and garlic in olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste and toss to coat. Spread evenly on the baking sheet and roast for 30 min.

This can be done ahead of time. And if you double the portion, use the half roasted veggies for a side dish today, use the rest for soup tomorrow!

Place the roasted veggies in a blender with 1 1/2 c. broth (chicle or vegetable). Blend until smooth.

Put the soup in a sauce pot and cook a little longer to thicken. Add salt and pepper if needed. Add a tablespoon of heavy cream or half and half of you want a more creamy consistency.

Basil Pesto:

1/2 c. Pine nuts (pignoli) or almonds
2 c. Loosely packed fresh basil
1 Clove of garlic
1/3 c Parmesan cheese (or Romano)
Juice from half a lemon
Salt and pepper to taste (careful with the salt as the cheese is salty already)
1/2 c. Of olive oil

Add the nuts to the food processor first. Blend until they are crumbs.
Add everything else but the oil. Turn on the processor and slowly pour in the olive oil. Taste and adjust (you add more of anything you like to find the perfect balance)

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My Spectacular Spanish Feast: Tapas at Curate

Sometimes you have such an out of this world meal, you gotta write about it. My lunch at Curate Tapas Bar was that kind of experience.


I travelled to the mountain town of Asheville, North Carolina to spend the weekend in a stunning cabin for my sister’s bachelorette party.  I’ll spare you the details of that portion of the festivities.  Let’s talk about the food in this tourist town!  The bride has been trying to dine at the popular Spanish tapas restaurant, Curate Tapas Bar every time she visits this charming city.   

Finally upon her third or fourth attempt, we scored seats at the bar where I got to watch our tapas being crafted right in front of us.  My favorite part played out before we even swallowed a bite.  Stunning Jamon Iberico shaved right in front of me. It instantly took me back to my time as a study abroad student in Pamplona, Spain.


We dove right in to the extensive and authentic menu… and admittedly over ordered out of pure enthusiasm and deep hunger.  I crave the kind of freshly cured olives that you get at a classic tapas bar. So I was very pleased when they tasted just as I hoped, beautifully marinated in lemon, rosemary and thyme.


Round one also included an ensalada verano with sheep cheese and pressed watermelon, and a Russian potato salad (another item I remember seeing on nearly every tapas menu in Spain) 

Next came the melt in your mouth Jamon Serrano Fermin.  Sliced thin, the salty, smokey goodness took me away to the land of bull fights and flamenco. Such a nostalgic treat for a me!  The bars in the neighborhood where I lived in the Navarre region had legs of this stuff hanging from the ceiling by the dozens.


Since it was a warm summer afternoon, we couldn’t resist ordering a bowl of refreshing, creamy gazpacho.  I was pleasantly surprised at how delicate the garlic flavor was in this cold tomato and cucumber based soup. Oftentimes restaurants make the garlic element of this iconic dish far too overpowering for my taste. Not Curate. For me, they nailed it.

  
Two other dishes we sampled were new to me and worth trying! The lamb skewers were cooked to tender perfection and accompanied by cunchy pickled cucumbers. And the grilled red peppers stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with parsley purée were decadent. I’m sure these are more modern liberties the chef was taking with tapas, but I didn’t mind.

It wouldn’t be a Spanish feast without croquetas either. These creamy fritters were filled with shredded chicken and cheese. Just rich and crispy enough.


We finished the meal with their most popular menu item, sautéed shrimp with sliced garlic in a sherry broth. And with what can only be described as the classic Spanish tapa, the tortilla espanola.  The egg, potato and onion dish is something I like to recreate on occasion. It didn’t disappoint!

When it comes to authentic Spanish cuisine and a tapas bar atmosphere, I have pretty high standards given my history.  Curate sets the (tapas) bar!

Mangia Mojo Shrimp Skewers

Shrimp cocktail is a real treat…one you shouldn’t waste when there’s excess. (I’m still unsure why there ever is!) But it has a short shelf life.  So when there was a bowl full of shrimp leftover from my birthday dinner (Thanks, Mom) I moved quickly to execute some Cheftovers magic. 

shrimp cocktail

I recently connected with the fine folks and fellow foodies at Mangia Dry Rub(http://www.mangia.tv/) They invited me to try a couple of their products and incorporate them into some of my Cheftovers concoctions.  Since one of them was labeled “Shrimp Mojo Dry Rub,” I took this as a sign!  It’s packed with Cajun flavors (Ingredients: onion powder, garlic powder, salt, sugar, spices: paprika, celery, nutmeg, black pepper, cayenne pepper and turmeric)

mangia dry rub

I followed the instructions on the package, and mixed two parts spice mix with one part oil (I used canola) then added that to a Ziploc bag full of the  cocktail shrimp for a kind of “reverse marinade” since the shrimp was already cooked.  I stuck that in the fridge for about an hour until I was ready to grill ’em up.

marinating shrimp

When it was time to fire them, I found some wooden skewers and a long grill pan.  I threaded six or seven shrimp on each skewer, and was pleased with how well the Mangia Mojo rub stuck to the shrimp. I hate when all the marinade (and the flavor) is left in the container you marinated in, instead of on the meat.

bringing shrimp up to temp

Here was the tricky part.  The shrimp was already cooked, and it’s really easy to over cook it, of course.  So to prevent tough, overdone shrimp, but also grill in that “mojo” I let the shrimp sit out on the counter for a few minutes to bring it up to room temperature.  I cranked up the burners below the grill pan to high.  What I was going for was a nice sear or grill marks on the outside…just a quick fire to change the flavor of the shrimp.  It only took a minute or two on each side.  (it’ll depend on the size of the shrimp you’re working with)

grilling shrimp

It was as easy as that!  I grabbed a nice pasta salad (also made with leftovers https://www.facebook.com/Cheftovers) from the fridge to accompany it.

pasta salad

Suddenly this meal was starting to feel like I was bringing the cook-out indoors.  The Mangia Mojo Dry Rub gave the shrimp cocktail a new personality, and it helped turn an appetizer into a satisfying supper.

mangia mojo shrimp skewers

mix one part

Double Dipping

When I had some girlfriends over for a little red wine and red carpet reviews during this awards season, I made a few of snacks for us to nibble on.  After all…we weren’t the ones who had to squeeze into one of a kind gowns that fit like a glove.  Among the apps we passed around while sharing thoughts that were equal part admiration and jealousy, was a creamy shrimp dip.  Knowing it wouldn’t keep if it sat out as long as these awards shows last, I put half of the recipe I made in the fridge.  And I had about two cups leftover.  Better make use of it…there was good shrimp in that!  

leftover shrimp dip

At least once a week, I find ways to use tortillas.  And taking a look in my fridge, I also spotted the rest of that salsa verde I was looking to use up (See previous post-Freezer Games)  I thought about using this creamy shrimp dip as the base sauce for some enchiladas!  Besides the shrimp, It had cream cheese, sour cream and mayo in it, plus some celery, green onion and cocktail onions (which I used instead of the pearl onions the recipe called for) I didn’t know if it would work, but you won’t know unless you try.

First step was to grill up the single defrosted chicken breast I had in the fridge (also something I needed to use before it spoiled).  I seasoned it with salt and pepper, cumin, and chili powder, then cooked it on a grill pan.  My husband, who by now could smell what was developing in the kitchen, wisely suggested I shred the meat.  It was a good call.

shredded chicken

Having the chicken in that form made for a better filling and, I think, stretched that one breast a little bit further.  Gradually, I added spoonfuls of the shrimp dip until the filling was the consistency I was going for.

chicken enchilad filling

I put about 3-4 tablespoons of the filling near one end of a tortilla, tucked that end underneath the filling and rolled it tightly.  Then I put them seam side down in a greased casserole dish.  I repeated the process until the filling was gone (had enough for four, perfect!)

salsa verde on enchilada

I also had just enough salsa verde left over to pour over the four enchiladas.  I topped them with a shredded Mexican cheese blend, covered it with foil and baked my “double dip delight” at 350* until it was warmed through and the top was bubbling.

chicken and shrimp enchiladas

I was really pleased with the way these creamy chicken and shrimp enchiladas turned out, and it was all inspired by a little leftovers from a little girl time.

This weekend is the Academy Awards.  What are you making for your watch party?  More importantly, what do you hope you have leftover?

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.

 

“sCRUMBtious” Shrimp

I like potato chips a whole lot.  And it always pains me to toss the end of the bag away, along with all those perfectly good crumbs.  But until this week, the only way I knew to consume them was through a very undignified method of upending the bag and pouring them into my mouth.  Not ladylike.

I love to take a whole Sunday afternoon and just experiment in the kitchen.  This week I was able to try out a handful of things.  Some things worked, some didn’t (I’ll spare you the details of the failures).  The results of what did work was pretty damned tasty.  Potato Chip Crusted Shrimp with a pair of dipping sauces, Honey Sriracha and Chipotle BBQ.

leftover Lays

I grabbed the remnants of what was a jumbo bag of Lays chips out of my cupboard and crushed them inside the bag (less mess!!) I used my hands and a rolling pin.  When then were almost the size of bread crumbs I was satisfied.

potato chip crumbs

Since the chips were already moist (and seasoned) and the shrimp I was working with were wet, I chose to skip the usual 3-step breading process: flour, egg and breading…and just go right to the breading.  The coating would probably stick better with the standard method, but I was looking to use up my calorie count with the chips instead of the flour and egg.  I coated the shrimp in the potato chips crumbs and thought it best to move quickly before they dried and fell off.

potato chip coated shrimp

A chef friend of mine, Brandt Evans, taught me how to make pretzel crusted trout, and one of his tricks was to add oil (about a tablespoon of canola) to a cold pan and then put the seafood in, to avoid burning the coating.  I tried that in this case, and it worked well.  It goes against what most of us know, but it’s the right call here.

fried potato chip crusted shrimp

This step just took a few minutes on the frying pan.  I put it on medium/high heat and they were golden brown in only about 3 minutes.  Now, prior to browning up the shrimp, I started experimenting with the dipping sauces.  First thought: Honey Sriracha.  I’m very in to “sweet heat” nowadays.  And it was done in no time at all.  I just put a couple of teaspoons of honey in a ramekin and heated it up so it would mix well with a dash of Sriracha, my new favorite hot sauce.  This step is up to you, however hot or sweet you want it.  Find your happy place.

chipolte BBQ sauce

If you don’t keep Sriracha in your fridge, try a Chipotle BBQ variety instead.  I just put a couple of tablespoons of BBQ sauce in another ramekin, and added a dash of chipotle chili, and the same amount of cumin for some smokey flavor.  I fired that up in the microwave to heat it up.  Both sauces were good.  But I preferred the Honey Sriracha.

The end result of this experiment was a great appetizer.  But you could certainly apply this to a larger volume of shrimp and be pretty satisfied!  I encourage you to try something in the kitchen this week…and report back!