Saturday, December 6, 2008

It's beginning to look a lot like party dip

Snow outside my apartment window can only mean one party season has arrived!

Champagne cocktails galore, roasted nuts in every bowl, and spinach dip as far as the eye can see...and don't even get me started on the plethora of holiday cookies. really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Unless, of course, you're saddled with more potluck Evites than you can count and have the cooking skills of an eight year old.

Well, lucky for you, you read this blog! I have a few go-to things I tote to parties (thus, the season of schlepping through the snow begins...sigh) that are always crowd-pleasers.

I even tested a new recipe for a party this weekend, and it got rave reviews (and was completely demolished by the end of the night - always a good sign).

My old standby is a recipe my BBF Alisha gave me back in college. Hence, I have always called it Alisha's Taco Dip. Not only is it the crack cocaine of dip (seriously, people will just stand around the hors d'ouevres table and nosh ravenously), it's super fast and easy and requires ingredients you could probably grab at a 7-11 in a pinch.


1 package cream cheese
1 16-oz. container sour cream
1 package taco seasoning
1 can refried beans
shredded Mexican blend cheese

These are the basic ingredients - you can add any number of things to it - pimientos, jalapenos, black olives, tomatoes - whatever you want.

Just mix all the ingredients together except the cheese, spread in a casserole dish, cover with a layer of the cheese, and bake, uncovered, for about 30 minutes. Serve with tortilla chips.

The recipe that was such a hit recently is a Cheese Dip Pine Cone - very seasonal. I found a recipe in a magazine that inspired it, and just modified it to fit my tastes. The basic idea is that you shape cheese dip into an oval, and stick toasted sliced almonds in it to resemble a pine cone (a few girls at the party asked if it was supposed to be a Christmas porcupine...hmmmm).


2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 8-oz. container sour cream (I used light)
1 small jar pimientos
8 oz. havarti dill, grated
4 oz. chihuahua or other salty cheese, grated
1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley
squeeze of lemon juice
dash of cayenne pepper
dash of black pepper
sliced almonds, toasted
rosemary sprigs for the "greenery" garnish

I added the pimientos and parsley for a red and green effect (very Christmas-y), and they really added a lot to the flavor.

Mix all the ingredients except the almonds and the rosemary together in a large mixing bowl. Spread the mixture into an oval shape (I used a spatula to this and it worked well) on a tray. Cover and refrigerate from a minimum of 2 hours to overnight.

Toast the almonds in a single layer in the oven or in a pan. Cool. Starting at the top of the oval, stick them in one by one in a pine-cone-ish formation. Add the rosemary sprigs at the bottom.

Serve with crackers (I used whole wheat crackers and rosemary/olive oil Triscuits, and they were both great with it). It would also be great with crudites or french bread.

My last go-to party recipe is my Grandma's banana pudding. It's one of those throwback desserts that nobody thinks about, but one bite in, people are just standing around, practically shanking each other with plastic sporks to get at another plateful. And, like the Taco Dip, it's one of the easiest things you'll ever make.


1 tub Cool Whip, thawed (do NOT use actual whipped cream in this, e.g., Reddi Wip - it won't work)
1 package instant vanilla pudding (you'll need milk, preferably whole, to make it)
1 box Nilla Wafers
5-6 bananas, perfectly ripe

Make the pudding and let it chill for about 15 minutes in the fridge until it's set.
In a large bowl, whisk in about 1/2 of the tub of Cool Whip until it's smooth.

In a 9 X 9" casserole dish or bowl, place Nilla Wafers side by side in the bottom to create a sort of crust.

Cut the bananas into round slices (about 3/4" inch thick). Place a layer of banana slices on top of the layer of Wafers.

Pour 1/2 of the pudding/Cool Whip mixture over the top, smoothing with a spatula.

Put another layer of Nilla Wafers and bananas on top. Pour the rest of the pudding on top. Using a spatula, spread the remaining Cool Whip over top of the pudding layer. Place a layer of Nilla Wafers (in a pattern, if you want) on top. Refrigerate for an hour before serving, or refigerate overnight to serve the next day.

So, friends, put on Mariah Carey's timeless Christmas album, spend some time in the kitchen with good food, good pals, and bad champagne, and enjoy the holiday season!

Thanks for reading! Happy Merry Christmahannukwanzakah!

The Ecstasy of St. Michael Chiarello

I know what you're thinking:

Why is she opening this blog posting with a photo of Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa"? Well, friends, because I found some lost images of a Butternut Squash lasagna on my camera this morning, and the memory of biting into the savory, melty, noodly deliciousness immediately conjured up this mental image.

Art historians claim St. Teresa was in the throes of an intimate encounter with the Holy Spirit, but I think she may have just snuck a bite of my Butternut Squash Lasagna...

My recipe was inspired by a recipe I found while browsing through one of Michael Chiarello's cookbooks. I did my best to commit the main ingredients to memory so I could create something similar at home.


For the squash filling:

1 large butternut squash
1-2 cups milk
some butter
olive oil
parmesan cheese
salt and pepper
cayenne pepper

For the bechamel sauce:

3-4 cups milk


1 package dry lasagna noodles
sliced fresh mozzarella

When I made this, I did it over the course of two days, not to complicate my life, but to simplify it.

I always tell everyone that lasagna isn't hard to make, it's just time consuming. So to avoid having dinner at 10 PM, I broke this process up into two nights, which I'd recommend unless you have a few hours in the kitchen to work before dinnertime.


Halve the squash lengthwise and remove the seeds. Place it on a baking pan and rub with a little olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast for about an hour and 15 minutes at 400 degrees, until the squash flesh is soft enough to be mashed with a fork. Let cool enough to handle easily.


Spoon out the flesh of the squash into a large mixing bowl. Add some milk (start with about a cup), throw in some salt and pepper, parmesan (about a cup), and a little nutmeg and cayenne pepper (a couple pinches of each). Add milk as needed until the consistency of the mixture is spreadable.

***This is where I took my 24 hour hiatus. At this point, either just continue making the rest, or cover and refrigerate the squash mixture.***


Boil salted water with a little olive oil in it and cook lasagna noodles until they're al dente. Drain them and pour cold water (maybe add some ice cubes) over the top so they're cool enough to handle.


Make the bechamel sauce by melting about a 1/3 stick of butter in a saucepan and whisking in about 3/4 c. of flour to make a roux. Cook that for about a minute, then whisk in about 3 cups of milk and some salt and pepper to taste and cook for about 5-6 minutes, whisking constantly, until it's thickened (coats the back of a spoon). Remove from heat or keep on a very low warming temp.


Rub a little olive oil in the bottom of a casserole dish (to prevent sticking). Drain each noodle as much as possible before putting it in the bottom of the dish, and create a layer of noodles three noodles across in the bottom of the dish.


Spread a layer of the squash mixture over the noodles (this is sort of difficult, as the noodles want to slide around and the mixture wants to glop up in clumps, but just use your hands and be patient until you get a semi-even layer over the noodles. It doesn't have to perfect.


Sprinkle about a handful of grated parmesan over the squash layer, then pour on about 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Repeat the noodles, squash, parmesan, and bechamel layering two more times.


Put the final three noodles on top. Slice the ball of fresh mozzarella into 1/2 inch slices and layer on top of the noodles. Sprinkle with another handful of parmesan.


Bake at 375 for about 35-40 minutes, until the edges are bubbly and the cheese on top is melted and beginning to brown, like cheese on a pizza.

STEP 10:

I always try to let my lasagnas "rest" before I serve them. Otherwise, the layers won't meld properly, and each piece will just be a floppy, metly pile of gooey cheese and noodles - which is fine if you don't care how it looks, but I prefer to have it in pieces that are somewhat recognizable as squares. If you want, top the whole thing with a little fresh chopped sage, basil, or parsley.

Here's a photo of the finished thing (not mine, but a pic from the interwebs):

The great thing about this is that it makes a lot, and the leftovers just keep getting better and better the longer they sit.

Since I didn't do this meal with my judging format in mind, I don't have any pithy criticisms to share, but I can tell you that, in retrospect, there are things I would add for the next time I make this dish (and I can't WAIT to make it again): I would add fresh chopped sage to the squash mixture, and probably some element of crunch, such as toasted pine nuts. The dish was good, but there's just really nothing about it to bite into - octogenarians with denture issues would be just fine having this for dinner. If I were to make it a meat dish, I would use a little crumbled spicy Italian sausage in one of the layers.

I suggest serving this with a crisp green salad and an acidic vinaigrette to cut the richness of it, and it's great with a really dry white wine.

Thanks for reading!

Keep an eye out soon for Holiday Party Dips!

Thursday, September 25, 2008


The new thing, I hear, is "staycations" - vacations where you stay at home.

I present to you Blogcations: a thoroughly modern concept of vacationing where it's perfectly acceptable to check your email, update your Facebook status, and even catch up on the blogs you're too busy to write when you're not on vacation!

I am blogging right now from Ocean City, NJ. I'd love to qualify "Ocean City, NJ," with adjectives like "sunny," "balmy," and "gorgeous," but as I type, the wind is howling outside at speeds of 50 MPH (15 MPH faster than the speed limit anywhere on the island). Rain is pelting the windows of our beach house, and the ocean looks downright angry (as Ross would describe it, "Victory at sea").

A few photos of the Ocean City boardwalk below, before the weather became inclement:

Despite Mother Nature's blatant disregard for my ONLY vacation of the year, I present to you the first annual Ocean City Beach Vacation Blog, or: Ribeye Steaks with Papaya-Pear Sauce and Stuffed Bell Peppers.

There are two outstanding food stores on the island, Luna Sea, a natural foods and vitamin store, and the Super Fresh Superstore - a traditional grocery store with two enthusiastic "supers" in its name!

Ross is really excited about buying steak:

Ross wanted Ribeyes. At Luna Sea, they were about $13 each, so we decided to get our produce and a few other things there (we had heard from a friend that they got their produce in every Wednesday), and submit to traditional farming methods by buying the meat at Superfresh (it was, in fact, both super and fresh).

Since it is our beach vacation, and we were (ostensibly) going to be spending time in bikinis (especially Ross - he just loves to wear bikinis), I wanted to keep the side dish light, hence the brown-rice-stuffed bell peppers.

Without further ado:


3 ribeye steaks, at room temperature
salt-free herb rub (I used Organic brand Original Salt-free all-purpose rub)
1 bunch fresh parsley
olive oil for cooking the steaks in a pan
1 c. brown rice medley, uncooked
1 T. butter or olive oil for the rice mixture
1 small white or yellow onion
1 small can diced mild green chiles
2 green (or any kind) bell peppers
1 medium fresh tomato
1/2 a lemon
salt and pepper
1 small jar papaya chutney (or substitute another kind of chutney if you can't find papaya)
1 and 1/2 fresh red pears (or other pear variety)
About 3/4 c. wine
About 2/3 c. balsamic vinegar
dash red pepper flakes
splash of white wine (for the rice stuffing)


Preheat oven to 375. Cook rice according to package directions.

In a large bowl, mix diced onion, green chiles, and diced tomatoes. When rice is done cooking, stir into the bowl until well-mixed and add salt and pepper to taste.


Cut green peppers in half and remove seeds, stem, and ribs. Fill each half with the rice mixture and place in a baking dish. Bake at 375 for about 30 minutes, until onions become tender and green peppers begin to soften.


In a small saucepan, combine wine, balsamic vinegar, diced pears, papaya chutney, and a little salt, pepper, and dash of red pepper flakes. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for about 45 minutes, until pears begin to break down and sauce reduces and thickens to applesauce-ish thickness. Squeeze in the juice of a half a lemon and stir in before serving.


Preheat about a T. of olive oil in a grill pan or nonstick pan over medium-high heat, and season both sides of the room-temperature steaks with salt, pepper, and salt-free seasoning. When the oil is hot, place steaks in the pan, cooking to desired doneness (about 3-4 minutes on each side for medium doneness, depending on the thickness of the steaks). Flip and cook on the other side.


Serve steaks with a stuffed pepper each, and spoon sauce over each steak (do this tableside, for a little flair, if you want). Top with a little fresh chopped parsley.


CONNIE: The steak is great. This is the best stuffed pepper I've ever had. I don't like when everything is stuffed too tight in there.

ROSS: It was a Rib-bulls-eye. Good job.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: 8 stars. I always give myself props when I can not ruin steak. It's always heartbreaking to destroy something so delicious (and expensive), so when they're cooked to a perfect doneness, that earns stars. I liked the stuffed pepper. It's not the most fearless thing I've ever made, considering I've made many of them, although I did buy sundried tomatoes to put in them, and when I rehydrated them, I tasted one, and it tasted like I've always thought raccoon dung might taste (I know you're wondering how often I've ruminated about the taste of raccoon dung). I threw those out and used the fresh tomato we had on hand at the house. The peppers were a good, light complement to the steak, I thought.

Despite the uncooperative weather, a vacation is a vacation (a bad day at the beach is still better than a great day at the office), and it was nice to have time to indulge in a home-cooked meal.

Thanks to my guests/hosts!

More soon...

From Justin to Kelly...One Year Later

This blog is a very special one. Not only because it's my 50th (!) post, but because it's in celebration of my dear friends' Kelly and Justin's (almost) first year together (Justin, stop shaking like an Italian greyhound).

They met when I brought them together last summer for some really bad Thai Chicken Soup (which they were great sports about), and here we are, one year hence, eating chicken all over again!

Let's see what's changed in the last year: Kelly's hair is darker, Justin and I no longer work directly on the same account, and Kelly got an unexpected one-month sabbatical from her job as Chicago's duchess of print production, only to return when they realized they couldn't live without her daily fabulosity! So, to be succinct, not much.

I almost forgot: we moved! This is our new apartment:

And to celebrate how sometimes, things staying (almost) the same are really what make you the happiest, I present to you, my blog's post-hiatus relaunch meal: Thyme-Roasted Chicken Breast with Warm Rice and Spinach Salad. (If my blog had sound effects, you'd be hearing triumphant horns right now.)

The hummus we ate as an appetizer:


4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, fat trimmed off
6-7 sprigs fresh thyme
salt, pepper, and a little olive oil for the chicken
1 and 1/2 c. uncooked brown rice medley
chicken broth to cook the rice in (use to replace the cooking water, if desired)
1 T. butter or olive oil for the rice mixture
2 red onions, sliced into half-moons
1 T. olive oil, to caramelize the onions
1 and 1/2 bags baby spinach leaves
1/2 c. pine nuts, toasted
Squeeze of lemon juice (about 1/2 lemon)
2 c. grape tomatoes
2 T. oilve oil for the tomatoes
2 T. balsamic vinegar
8-10 small marinated mozzarella balls, drained of most oil
chopped fresh parsley for garnish


Preheat the oven to 375. Place the chicken breasts in a baking dish, and season with salt and pepper, and drizzle a little olive oil over the top, rubbing it in. Place in the oven, and cook until juices run clear (about 30 minutes).


Wash and drain the grape tomatoes. Place in a baking dish, and drizzle with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and season with salt and pepper, tossing to coat. Bake for about 45 minutes at 375. The last 5-10 minutes of baking, nestle the marinated mozzarella balls into the tomatoes and let them bake until they begin to melt.


Slice the red onions into thin half-moons, and cook them in a little olive oil over medium-high heat for about 20-25 minutes, until they caramelize (get nice and brown and soft).


Cook the rice mixture according to package directions. When almost all the broth has been obsorbed, stir in the spinach leaves, toasted pine nuts (just sautee them in a dry pan for about 8-10 minutes until they begin to brown), and caramelized onions. Add the squeeze of lemon juice, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir until the spinach leaves wilt, and then leave the lid on until you're ready to serve.


Place a chicken breast on each place, and spoon some of the tomato-and-mozzarella over it, getting some of the juicy sauce on there, too. Serve the warm rice salad as a side dish. Garnish with some fresh chopped parsley.


KELLY: Very good. I like the melty mozzarella in the tomatoes.

ROSS: I thought the chicken and tomatoes had excellent synergy. It's nice not to eat out.

JUSTIN: I thought the tomatoes were really good, but I could've used even more sauce. And normally I don't like onions, but these tasted really good - but I wish they were chopped up into smaller pieces, so I could've just tasted them, andnot felt like I was really eating onions.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: 6 stars. I thought the chicken was nice and lean, although I think I should've taken it out of the oven about 10 minutes earlier. And I also should've more closely watched the mozzarella - I wanted it to be melty, but not so melty that it completely disappeared and sunk to the bottom of the baking dish. I wanted them to still be recognizable as balls of cheese. The tomatoes were tasty, though, and I thought the rice salad came out well. The squeeze of lemon balanced out the sweetness of the onions. Overall, tasty, filling, and healthful, without being too heavy.

I stupidly forgot to take pictures of our guests of honor, Justin and Kelly, but here's a picture of them from awhile back:

(They are still just as lovely.)

We tried out the new dining room table (which is to say, we ate off our coffee table since we no longer have a "dining" table), but it held up our plates just fine.

We drank a great pinot noir that Kelly brought (she has a knack for picking out great wines with screwcaps), and of course, toasted to a great year behind us - and hopefully to another one ahead.

Thanks to my guests!

More soon...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

But Oh, Oh, Those Summer Nights

Summer has officially (OK, 4 days shy of officially) come to an end. Which officially means my unofficial Summer Blog Hiatus has officially come to an unofficial end, too.


Let's take a look back at what I was doing this summer instead of blogging about cooking, shall we?

I was spending 10 hours in Montrose Park having a Fourth of July BBQ:

I was lounging in my (old) backyard, taking pictures of the late-afternoon sun:

I was attending quite a few other BBQ's, like this one at Ecole's swanky downtown pad:

I was playing hookey from work to take two-hour bus tours around Chicago:

I was celebrating Sarah's brithday...

...with everyone who ever went to the Creative Circus!

I was going dancing with Jesse, Jess, and Leigh, followed by a 5 AM breakfast at Melrose Diner:

Ross and I partied at our friends' Steve and MaryBeth's beautiful wedding:

Then we partied some more at the highlight of the Chicago ad communitiy's summer, the Optimus Party:

A few days later, Leigh (and my other wonderful friends) helped me celebrate my 26th birthday!

And my best friend Alisha came to visit!

I know that sharing all the fun I had doesn't make up for the fact that I have left my (admittedly small) fan base hanging all season, but I hope you'll all stay with me through the fall and into winter (when there'snot as much fun to be had, and therefore lots more time to sit at home and upload pictures all night).

And the good news is, coming up within the next few hours, I'll be posting two new blogs! And they're actually about cooking!

As I sit here in Ocean City, NJ, listening to gale-force winds howl outside (what little respect Mother Nature has to my piddly two weeks of paid vacation per year!), I'm reminded that you have to seize the good times - and good weather - before they're gone.

Summer flew by (and this vacation - summer's last hurrah - is flying by even as I type), but I'm looking forward to a cozy winter in a new apartment, with new blogs, new recipes, but - of course - old friends to share them with.

If you haven't been over as a blog judge in awhile, give me a call. We'll set it up.

More to come! Peace...
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