Monday, January 21, 2008

Can I Pick[y] Your Brain?

duh-NUH. duh-NUH. duh-NUH. [Insert classic Jaws theme music rising to a heart-stopping crescendo here....] PICKY EATER!!!

Don't look now, but it's the number one fear of the bravest of cooks: a picky guest. Jess' longtime friend Chris was in town on business, and of course we wanted to have him over for a home-cooked meal. Jess (by way of Chris' wife, her good friend Molly) warned me that back in Chris' college days, he ate exclusively hamburgers - no cheese. I was worried. This Fearless challenge could implode on me in an instant.

A few choice quotes from Chris:

"Cheese on my burgers? I might go there now, once in a while."
"I don't like salad. Lettuce in general kinda skeeves me out."
"I like chicken stuffed with stuff."

Well, that last quote was all I had to go on, so - with Jess' input - we came up with a suitable menu. Once we ran it by the Mrs. on the phone, Jess got all the groceries and we were as good as committed. Besides, according to Molly, married life has had a very positive effect on Chris' palate, since Molly has instituted an If-You-Don't-Like-It-Then-Make-Your-Own-Damn-Dinner policy.

FEARLSS FACTOR: 9. Downright terrifying.

I made Feta, Mushroom, and Sun-dried Tomato-Stuffed Chicken, with herbed olive Couscous and roasted garlicky Broccolini. It was a Mediterranean-inspired meal that might make even adventurous eaters a mite nervous, so I wasn't sure how it would all shake out. Read on to find out....


4 skinless, boneless, fresh (not frozen) chicken breasts
4 oz. feta cheese with Mediterranean spices
3 medium portobella mushrooms
1 jar julienned sun-dried tomatoes packed in olive oil
1 1/2 c. dry whole wheat couscous
1 1/2 c. chicken broth (for couscous)
6-7 pitted kalamata olives, chopped
1/4 c. chopped parsley
1 lb. broccolini
3 cloves garlic
2 T. olive oil
salt and pepper
1/2 c. balsamic vinegar
1/2 c. chicken broth (for sauce)
dash cayenne pepper
1/4 c. honey
2 T. butter


Slice the chicken breasts in almost half lengthwise, but not all the way through. Lay them flat on a cutting board, cover them with Saran wrap or wax paper, and flatten them out with a meat tenderizer until they're thin enough to work with easily (about 1/2" thick in most places). Salt and pepper the inside.


Chop the mushrooms. Drain a little of the oil out of the sun-dried tomatoes, leaving enough to cook the tomatoes and mushrooms in. Add them to the pan with the mushrooms, adding a little salt and pepper, and saute them on medium heat for about 8-10 minutes. Then drain them on a paper towel to remove the excess oil.


Place about 1 oz. feta cheese on one half of each chicken breast. Top with some of the tomato-mushroom mixture. Flod the other half of the chicken over the top, lightly salt and pepper the outside, and place in a baking dish. Bake at 375 for about 25-30 minutes.


Trim the tough ends off the broccolini and place in a baking dish. In a saute pan, heat 2 T. olive oil and saute the garlic until it's fragrant. Then pour the olive-oil-garlic mixture over the broccolini and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. Bake at 375 for about 15 minutes (you can just put it in there with the chicken).


In a saute pan over medium heat, toast the raw pine nuts for about 5 minutes, until they begin to brown. Chop the parsley and the olives. In another pot, cook the couscous according to the package directions, substituting chicken broth for the water. When all the liquid has been absorbed by the couscous, stir in the parsley, pine nuts, and olives.


In a saucepan over high heat, combine the balsamic vinegar, chicken broth, cayenne pepper, and honey, and reduce by 2/3. Stir in the butter and allow to cool and thicken for a few minutes before serving over the chicken. Enjoy!

Chris, the Picky Eater in the flesh, is in the middle in the photo below. As it turned out, he cleaned his plate, and had only good things to say about the meal! I was flattered and relieved. He was a delightful dinner guest.


Jess: I wasn't confident that this meal would turn out well. I mean any meal I helped come up with, you just never know. But it was really one of the best meals you've made in a long time. I thought the pine nuts were going to be a weak flavor addition to the couscous, but it was really good.

Chris: This was really good. I even liked the couscous, and Molly said I wouldn't eat it all! This was definitely good "chicken stuffed with stuff."

Ross: Mmmmmmmmmmm. Mmmmmmmmmmm.


I give it 8 stars. Pretty tasty. The chicken was not overcooked, the flavors worked well, and while I thought the broccoli was a bit salty, overall everything was good. I thought for sure the sauce was going to be too sweet, but the sweetness of the sun-dried tomatoes made it complementary.

I'm so glad everything turned out well! After dinner, we braved sub-zero temperatures to have a beer at the BOB (not just a cozy neighborhood fixture but a DESTINATION when friends are in town).

Thanks to Chris for being such a great guest! I'm glad you got to see Chicago in all its wintry glory.

Thanks for reading! more soon....

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Steak Your Claim

OK, this one's a freebie! It's not a traditional post, but I found the pictures in my camera - I had forgotten I took them. I was so excited to try out my brand new food processor that I got for Christmas. I had some steaks, and what goes better with steak than potatoes? So I made Rosemary-crusted Sirloin with Goat Cheese-Red Potato Gratin and Roasted Asparagus. Yummm!

Here's how I did it:

I halved or quartered the red potatoes (depending on their size, to fit into the processor), and sliced them with the food processor. I put them into a 9 X 13" casserole dish. Then in a large saute pan, I made a roux by melting some butter (about a half a stick) and adding about 3 T. flour until it formed a thick, almost doughy consistency. I whisked in some milk, and then crumbled in some goat cheese, salt, and pepper. I let the cheese melt, and continued to whisk the mixture until it was thick. Then I poured it over the potatoes. I baked them at 375 until the whole thing was hot and bubbly and the top had begun to brown.

To make the Cranberry Reduction that I put over my steaks (to the best I can remember), I began by pouring about 3/4 c. balsamic vinegar, a splash of red wine, and about 1 c. chicken stock in a saucepan. I also put in some salt and pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper, a whole rosemary stick (leaves intact, to be removed later), about 1/2 c. dried cranberries, and a couple generous spoonfuls of strawberry jam. I cooked it about 45 minutes, the entire time I was cooking everything else. That way, it had plenty of time to reduce and thicken. I've made plenty a runny sauce - the key is giving it time. Just put it on medium heat, and occasionally stir it. That's all there is to it.

As for the asparagus, it's my go-to weeknight veggie side dish, and my favorite way to cook it is how I did it for this meal. All I do is trim the ends off and place it in a shallow baking dish. I drizzle about a tablespoon of olive oil over it, and sprinkle it with salt and pepper. I toss it all together to evenly coat it with the oil and seasoning, and bake it on 400 for about 10 minutes. They come out perfectly tender-crisp every time.

And for the steaks, I had some relatively thinly cut sirloin, which is a really lean piece of meat - perfect for a weeknight red-meat meal. I used a steak seasoning blend all over both sides, and I finely chopped some fresh rosemary and pressed it into both sides of the meat. I heated some olive oil until is was really hot, enough to caramelize the outside of the steaks. Once they had some nice color on the first side (about 2-3 minutes), I flipped them and did the same for the other side. Then I reduced the heat to medium and cooked them for a few more minutes on each side, until they were cooked to medium.

This meal came out really well. The one downside was that the steak was sort of tough - I think that since it was so lean, it would've needed a nice long roast to really start to get tender. (But hey, when you're watching your figure, you have to make some sacfrifices.) The Gratin came out AMAZINGLY. It was so rich and satisfying - not the healthiest side dish I've ever made, but it was so rich, after just a small portion I was feeling full. And, as always, the asparagus was delish.

Try this one at home, folks! It sticks to your ribs.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Pie in the Sky

For this week's blog, I decided to make a valiant attempt at homemade pizza! I invited over my fabulous designer friends Jessica (not my roommate) and Sarah (you may recognize her from previous blogs). We had a relaxing Saturday night in - with the boys away, we watched an array of femme-friendly programming, including, but not limited to: figure skating, the Latin Dancing Championship, America's Next Top Model, an unidentified Josh Hartnett movie, and some grotesquely funny Lisa Lampinelli stand-up.

FEARLESS FACTOR: I'd say 9 out of 10. I know pizza doesn't sound all that hard to make (pile some stuff on some bread, right?), but I was worried that it would stick to the pan (since I forgot to buy cornmeal), that it would be too mushy or too burnt, or that I would desecrate my homemade sauce. Pizza is one of those foods that you just always order from somewhere else, so making it myself was a small culinary victory.

THE COOLEST THING EVER: Since I was going 85% homemade, I decided I'd give myself a break and NOT attempt my own dough (I think we all know how I feel about measuring dry ingredients - BOOOOOOO). So I stopped into trusty Bojono's and asked if they would sell me a couple dough balls. They not only graciously sold me two medium balls of raw dough, they only charged me A DOLLAR each for them!!! If that's not a deal, I don't know what is. (Although I began to really question the profit margin of a pizzeria.)

Read on to see how it came together....


[Note that this ingredient list makes two pizzas, with sauce leftover, most likely. I decided to make a Margherita pizza, a traditional Italian pizza with fresh basil, mozzarella, and tomatoes, and a "Supreme" pizza, with sausage, pepperoni, bell peppers, and mushrooms.]

2 medium pizza dough balls
1 can plum tomatoes with basil
1 can marinara sauce
1 small can tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine
dried oregano
dried parsley
dried basil
red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
olive oil
fresh basil
fresh mozzarella
shredded mozzarella
1/2 container grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 c. hot Italian sausage, browned and crumbled
about 16 pepperoni slices
1/2 green bell pepper
1/2 red pepper
1/2 lb. white mushrooms, sliced


To make the pizza sauce, place the whole can of plum tomatoes with basil in the food processor and blend vey quickly, until mostly smooth. Add in the can of tomato paste and the can of marinara sauce. Sprinkle in the dried oregano, dried basil, and dried parsley, red pepper flakes (to taste) and salt and pepper (to taste). Blend again until mostly mixed. Transfer the mixture into a large cooking pot and add the wine. Cook over medium heat for about 20-30 minutes, allowing the sauce to thicken slightly. You can also add some chopped fresh basil to the pot.


Let your dough come to room temperature. DO NOT do what I did and leave it out, uncovered. Put it in some plastic wrap. Mine got a creepy skin along the part that was exposed to the air - it turned out fine, but it would have been easier to shape if that hadn't been there. Preheat the oven to 375. On a cookie sheet, rub a little olive oil all over the bottom to keep it from sticking.

[I mentioned the cornmeal earlier - the point of the cornmeal is to make the bottom of the pizza crisp, and prevent it from sticking to the pan - the oil actualy worked out OK, but in the future I would use cornmeal since it doesn't really add any significant fat or calories.]

Work with the pizza dough, stretching it out with your hands, sort of pulling it and turning it in a circle, until it begins to thin out.

[I actually attempted to throw it up in the air like they do in the pizzerias, which - to my utter shock - worked. It's a little dangerous when you don't have back-up dough, but if your hand-eye coordination isn't terrible, give it a whirl. It's the most fun you can have in the kitchen with your clothes on.]

When it's thinner, spread it out on the pan, flattening it out to the desired thickness and shape. Mine ended up being sort of freeform, which I really like - it seems so natural and rustic.


Spread a little olive oil on the surface of the dough, and rub it all the way to the edges (not too much - it should be about 1-2 T. at the most for the whole pizza). Spread a couple ladlefuls of sauce on the dough - how much you put is really up to you, depending on how saucy you like your pies. I used about 2 ladles per pizza.

For the Pizza Margherita, I made the dough freeform, but for the Supreme pizza, I shaped it into a 9 X 13" glass baking dish, which made for a slightly thicker, more doughy crust.


For the Pizza Margherita, place the fresh basil leaves, slices of the fresh mozzarella (about 1/2 thick), and the sliced tomatoes on top.

For the Supreme Pizza, brown the sausage. If it's in big chunks, like mine was, you can stick it in the food processor to cut it up into really small crubles. Spread the sausage on the sauce. Top it with the bell peppers and mushrooms.

NOTE: I chose to saute the veggies before I put them on the pizza. I just sauteed them in about a teaspoon of olive oil, and added just a dash or salt and pepper, for about 7-8 minutes, so they got a little tender. There's nothing I hate more than biting into a veggie pizza and feeling like the veggies are totally raw. After I sauteed them, I just drained them so they weren't soggy.

Add about a cup to a cup and a half of the shredded mozzarella on top, then arrange the pepperoni slices on top of that.


The two pizzas both baked for about 20 minutes, but I think the baking time will depend on the thickness of the crust, the nature of the toppings, and how brown you prefer the finished product. So I'd say start with baking any pizza for a minimum of about 15-20 minutes, and just watch it closely after that point.

In my haste to dig in, I forgot to take a picture of the finished Supreme pizza, but just imagine the most luscious, yummy pizza you can - it pretty much looked like that. I was even so bold as to take the pizza out about 5 minutes before it was done and sprinkle a little more cheese on top of the pepperoni, just for kicks.


Slice it and enjoy! Sarah was kind enough to bring over a pizza slicer, which made getting at the finished product that much simpler.


SARAH: [About the Pizza Margherita] This is so good. I'm so glad you're doing a blog, because I want the recipe. This is way better than Bojono's. [About the Supreme] This one is good too, but I like the other one better. I like the thinner, crisper dough. It just seems more homemade. The Supreme sort of seems like regular pizzeria pizza.

JESSICA: These are pretty good. You didn't f**k it up!

[Truer words were never spoken, J-Cam.]

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I have to give myself 9 out 10 stars. I was nervous about the whole thing, but in the end, the pizza came out great. I don't know which one I liked more - I guess I'd have to say the Pizza Margherita, since it was less guilt-inducing, although I felt pretty good about all of it, since I knew exactly what went into everything (except, of course, the dough, but I trust Bojono's not to put anything crazy in it, like lard). Next time, like I said, I'd use the cornmeal as a base on the underside of the pizza, but other than that I think there has never been a more perfect Saturday night meal.

It was one of those nights where kicking it on the sofa with your pals is the only place you want to be. Chicago nightlife will always be there next weekend!

Thanks to Sarah and Jessica for being such great judges, and thanks to everyone for reading!

See you next time....

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Look Who's [Not] Coming to Dinner

Welcome to 2008, my loyal blans! Many apologies for my extended absence from the blogsphere, but I have been orbiting in the holidayosphere for the past two and a half glorious work-free weeks.

Behold, my mom's self-styled Christmas "tree":

I managed to squeeze in a Fearless escapade while visiting the family in Atlanta, and I am thrilled to be back to share it with you.

The occasion at hand was my little brother, Will, coming down to my mom's place for dinner. My mom's friend Joanne was also planning to come. I called Will, ecstatic to be cooking for my beloved little bro, and asked him what he'd like to see on the table. He said, "Do something with, like...stuffed pasta shells...and mushrooms. Something with cheese." Sounded good to me! I concocted a Stuffed Shells-and-Shrooms Bake. Read on to see how it came together....

FEARLESS FACTOR: I'd say about a 6 out of 10. I've made some stuffed shells in my day - my mom made them growing up, and they were a family favorite. They're great because you can tailor them to just about anyone's taste - stuff them with Italian sausage for meat-lovers, or keep them vegetarian (which is what we opted to do) for the more health-minded eaters in your life. I decided to do half stuffed shells and half stuffed mushrooms, which was the more fearless part. I really wasn't entirely sure the flavors would meld nicely. Turns out that wasn't really the issue....


1 package uncooked large pasta shells
12 large stuffer mushrooms, stems removed
1 large container part-skim ricotta cheese
1 bag broccoli florets
1 large jar julienned sun-dried tomatoes in oil
Italian seasoning to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 c. part-skim Italian blend shredded cheese (or more if you want)
1 jar any kind marinara sauce (I used mushroom with Merlot)
1 T. garlic (or more if you like)
1-2 T. olive oil


Preheat the oven to 375. Boil the pasta shells until they're not quite tender - about one notch below perfectly al dente. They'll soften up in the oven. To make them cool enough to handle, I drain the hot water out, and then refill the pot with cool water and a bunch of ice. That way the shells stop cooking and you'll be able to reach for them one by one without them sticking together.


Chop the broccoli into small pieces. Drain most of the oil from the tomatoes, and chop those too.


In a large mixing bowl, combine the broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, and ricotta. Add the Italian seasoning and salt and pepper. In a small saute pan, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic for 1-2 minutes. Add this to the cheese and veggie mixture.


Using a tablespoon, fill the shells and the mushroom caps, one by one, with the ricotta mixture, and arrange them randomly in a 9 X 12 casserole dish, fitting them in tightly.


Cover the entire dish with the marinara sauce, then sprinkle some cheese over the top (I would've used a lot more cheese, but I was cooking for some LDL-conscious folks).


Bake at 375 for about 30-40 minutes, until everything is hot and bubbly. Serve it up with a fresh salad and some French bread. We drank a light and fruity Beaujolais in my mom's chic stemless wineglasses - which I must have!


MOM: I think this is really good. If I were to make it, I would use fat-free ricotta cheese, and I would use fresh tomatoes, because I'm not crazy about sun-dried tomatoes. I would also have cooked the broccoli first, because it could stand to be a little more tender.

JOANNE: I agree with the broccoli comment. I might also consider cooking the mushrooms somehow first, although everything tastes good.

MY VOTE ON MY DISH: I give it a 6 out of 10. I lost points not only for the undercooked veggies, but for the general lack of creativity, in my opinion. I wish I would have gone out on a limb more and done something totally crazy. Although it tasted good and the flavors worked, Mom and Jo were right about the veggies - next time, I'd probably boil the broccoli for just a few minutes first, and I'd also saute the mushrooms in the garlic and olive oil. And - for once - I think I underseasoned the whole dish. I am the Sodium Queen, but I was trying to be careful not to oversalt it for my guests.

NOTES: You may have noticed that Will, for whom the entire meal was intended and created, has not commented. That's because he NEVER SHOWED UP. He flaked. Bailed. He JetBlued us. Being the older, wiser, more magnanimous older sister I am, I wasn't mad, and chalked it up to the long drive he would've had to make. But he missed out on a free hot meal, something I would never have considered back when I was a poor, starving college student.

BONUS: Stuffed Olive Appetizer!!!

My mom and I just couldn't stop stuffing things - including our faces. She had some black olives, so we chopped some parsley, put it in a plastic Ziploc bag with some cream cheese (she only had fat-free, which is a culinary abomination and tasted like pure sugar - please only use regular cream cheese if you do this, or, better yet, goat or feta cheese), snipped off one of the corners of the bag, and piped the filling into the olives to make a nice little hors d'oevre.

We had a wonderful time chatting - and it was good to be back in Atlanta, my homeland. Special thanks to my mom for being such a helpful kitchen elf and to both Mom and Joanne for being such gracious judges. Look for some great new posts in the new year!

Thanks for reading!
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