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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Seared lamb chops with balsamic reduction

Ever get in a cooking funk? Yeah? Me, too. Despite the super busy holidays (which lent itself to some really fantastic cooking on my part, if I do say so myself), regular meal cooking was getting pretty blah around here.

But then I finally got a hold of some beautiful lamb loin chops from Rainbow Meadow Farm. Score! I had been wanting something different, and we hadn't had lamb in a really, really long time.

First, don't get intimidated if you've never cooked lamb before. Lamb is such a staple in other countries, it's a shame it's not as familiar to people in the U.S. I find the best cuts and quality of lamb almost always can be found with local farms (I mean, it's so rare to even find cuts of lamb in a typical grocery store, at least here in my part in NC). The biggest thing to remember, as with any top cut of meat, is to not overcook it.

So, with the grill vacationing out of the cold in the garage (and I certainly wasn't venturing out in the cold and rain we had the other day), I took out my trusty cast-iron. Some herbs and olive oil, and about 40 minutes later, we had a terrific meal. I set out to make an entirely balsamic reduction, to discover that I was really low on balsamic. Yikes! So, I used the rest of my balsamic (about 1/2 cup), the rest of my red wine vinegar (about 1/4 cup) and 1/4 cup white vinegar for the reduction (see below). Still turned out delish! Phew! Next time, I need to check my pantry before I start cooking.

I paired the seared lamb chops with some steamed local broccoli, and roasted mixed root veggies (also local).

Seared lamb chops with balsamic reduction
  • 4 lamb loin chops (3/4 to 1 inch thick)
  • 3/4 tsp dried rosemary
  • 1/4 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp ground thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/4 cup minced sweet onion 
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 3/4 cup chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  1.  Salt and pepper both sides of chops. Set aside.
  2. Mix rosemary, basil and thyme in a small bowl. Rub mixture on lamb chops.
  3. Heat olive oil in large skillet on medium-high heat. Place chops in skillet and cook for about 4 minutes on each side (medium to medium-rare) or until desired doneness. Place finished chops on a sheet or platter and keep warm in oven.
  4. Add onions (can replace with shallots) to skillet and cook until they start to become translucent. Add vinegar, scraping the bottom of the pan for any bits of lamb. Add chicken broth; continue to cook and stir over medium heat until reduced by half. Remove from heat, stir in butter. Spoon over chops and serve.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

"Pasta" salad

One of the best things about the fall and winter months are the delicious winter veggies that come into season in the Tar Heel state.

photo from newhealthguide.org
One of my favorites that I have become accustomed to over the last few years has been spaghetti squash. The exterior can vary in hue from almost white to yellow to orange, although I've encountered the yellow varieties most often. The flesh of the squash, when raw, is similar to other raw squashes. What makes this variety unique, however, is the flesh after it has been cooked -- after being prepared, the flesh pulls away from the skin in ribbons or strands, much like spaghetti noodles.

In fact, spaghetti squash, for the uninitiated, can be substituted for pasta in pretty much any recipe. I've even seen it used for crusts for quiche. And, it is low in calories while still high in folic acid, beta carotene, vitamin A and other nutrients.

Last night, we had a pseudo pasta salad that is great for those who try to incorporate meatless meals during the week. I included tomatoes, Kalamata olives, capers, and feta cheese, but you can add items to your taste preference (some sauteed mushrooms would probably be really good, too!).

Spaghetti squash "pasta" salad
  • 1 spaghetti squash
  • 1-2 tablespoons EVOO
  • 6 large cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered (you can add more or less to your preference)
  • 1 tablespoon capers
  • 2 tablespoons Kalmata olive slices
  • 1/4 lb feta cheese (I used the feta block in brine liquid from SleepyGoat Farm)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Pierce the outside skin of the spaghetti squash with a fork. Place on a baking pan (to collect any juices) and bake for 1 hour or until skin is easily pierced with a knife.
  2. Remove squash from the oven and let cool until you can touch it. Cut in half and scoop out and discard the middle pulp and seeds.
  3. In a large bowl, scoop out the flesh of the squash. Add a few tablespoons of EVOO and toss. Add tomatoes, capers, Kalamata olives; toss. Crumble the feta cheese and add to pasta. Season to taste. Serve and enjoy.
Additionally, prior to cooking, you can slice the squash in half and remove the pulp and seeds prior to cooking. Sometimes, winter squashes are tough to cut, so it is just as easy to cook whole (it just takes more cooking time and you need to remember to pierce the skins so the excess steam can escape).

This "salad" is good served warm or cold. You also can opt to heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a saute pan and saute the tomatoes with onions and garlic prior to adding to the spaghetti squash.

There are so many possibilities with this versatile squash! What have your favorite way to utilize it? Was it in a typical squash-type dish, or was it as a pasta substitute? Glad to get your feedback and favorite recipe ideas!

Monday, September 16, 2013

Comfort food -- soup

A September Sunday ... the end of the weekend, fall weather starting to take hold, NFL football.

Hubby had been craving "poor man's" soup (we also call it taco soup), but this was the first weekend we had a bit of cooler fall air. We both wanted different soup, so I made two kinds. It's so easy to freeze, and hubby has an option to bring to work for lunch this week. And there's nothing like homemade soup to warm the spirit and get you feeling cozy and anticipating the cooler seasons!

The first I made was Taco Soup, which Joe often calls poor man's soup. I was introduced to this by one of my friends, who was kind enough to cook and freeze several meals for me after I had my daughter in 2007. It's so simple and delicious, and pairs great with grilled cheese sandwiches. Sometimes I use actual store-bought taco seasoning, but only if I don't already have my own taco seasoning pre-made (see taco seasoning mix recipe below). And you can omit the ground beef for a vegetarian meal, too!

Taco soup
  • 3 - 28 oz cans diced tomatoes
  • 2 packets low/reduced sodium medium taco seasoning (or to taste)
  • 1 lb ground beef, cooked and fat drained
  • 2-3 cups whole kernel corn
  • 1 to 1.5 cups black beans (if using dried, rehydrate beans overnight prior to use in the soup)
  • Shredded cheddar cheese for topping (optional)
  1. In a large pot, empty 1 can of diced tomatoes. Drain juice from other diced tomato cans, and put diced tomatoes in blender. Puree until smooth and add to pot. Warm pot on low heat.
  2. Add taco seasoning, corn, and ground beef to tomatoes in pot. Stir occasionally; add more taco seasoning to taste if desired.
  3. If using canned black beans, drain and rinse beans. Add beans to the soup immediately prior to serving, stirring occasionally to warm through and prevent from burning. Once warmed, turn off heat and serve.
Homemade taco seasoning
  •  1 Tablespoon chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 tsp dried Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  1. Mix seasonings well and store in an airtight container.

Taco soup takes very little time to make. The amount of warming/cooking time really allows for the flavors of the seasoning to set in and blend.

Chicken, gnocchi and spinach soup, left, and taco soup on the left.

But I wasn't wanting a tomato-based soup, so I opted to make a knock-off of the Olive Garden chicken and gnocchi soup. First, a thanks to Carolina Grown member Leigh Brennan, who introduced me to the recipe. Second, since I use a lot of local ingredients, I have changed the original recipe ... and I must say it is a LOT better than the Olive Garden soup (and I like their version, too).


Chicken, gnocchi, and spinach soup
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick or equivalent)
  • 2 ribs celery, chopped fine 
  • 1 medium onion,  chopped fine 
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped or grated
  • 3 small Russet or Kennebec potatoes, cut into small cubes
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups milk 
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 2 packages boneless skinless chicken thighs (about 1.5 to 2 lbs)
  • 3/4 cup fresh spinach, julienne cut
  • 1 pound gnocchi (Melina's Fresh Pasta ricotta gnocchi or spinach gnocchi) 
  • 1/4 teaspoon each of (dried or fresh) rosemary & thyme
  • salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
  1. In a large pot, bring chicken broth to a boil, and add salt, pepper and raw chicken thighs. Rapid simmer until cooked. 
  2. As chicken is cooking, melt butter in a large skillet; add the celery, carrots, potatoes, onion, and garlic. Saute in butter until translucent. 
  3. Add flour to skillet mixture, and cook for 2-3 minutes to cook flour and thicken. Slowly add milk to the skillet, and stir until thick. 
  4. Remove cooked chicken from broth, and rough chop into pieces. Add back into broth. Add thickened skillet mixture to chicken and broth. Simmer, stir well, 2-3 minutes.
    Add gnocchi, rosemary, and thyme. 
  5. When gnocchi is tender, add spinach and stir until wilted. 
I add the potato to the soup because Melina's Fresh Pasta gnocchi is made with ricotta and not potato. I usually use her plain ricotta gnocchi, but occasionally I use the spinach gnocchi, which I did on Sunday.

I served the taco soup with grilled cheese sandwiches made with plain sliced white sandwich bread from Noemonde Bakery, which the hubby and the kids enjoyed. My little boy was dancing in his chair and saying "taco" while making a mess eating his food. But a bit of a mess is worth seeing a big smile on his face. And now I have leftovers in the fridge for lunch, and some soup in the freezer, too!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Birthday season is done!

Another baking extravaganza is done ... at least til the holidays.

My daughter's birthday was on the 26th, followed by my birthday, and then my mom's birthday was on Sept. 6. Natalie always wants mommy to make her birthday cake, and we had a family get together, so I obliged (hubby reminds me that it's those little things that she will always love and remember ... and I agree).

Now, I'm terrible at cake decorating. I can make a great-tasting cake, and good frosting, but I'm terrible and making it look pretty. I've been trying to get better, and I think I've definitely improved. Maybe one of these days I'll enroll myself in a cake decorating class. But, until then, I will just have to learn through trial and error.

Natalie loves chocolate, so a chocolate cake was a must. And she requested a Princess Sofia cake (that's the newest Disney princess and television show).

I used my favorite chocolate cake recipe (http://carolinagrown.blogspot.com/2011/09/best-chocolate-cake-ever.html) and made two 9-inch round cakes. I used the chocolate butter cream recipe to fill the cake and then I used a plain butter cream (with purple food coloring) to ice the outside of the cake. I bought little candies that looked like pearls to go on the outside of the cake, and I had bought Princess Sofia figurines to top it off.
 
For the plain butter cream, I used:

Plain butter cream frosting
  • 2/3 cup and 1 Tablespoon vegetable shortening
  • 2 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 3/4 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup whole milk (heavy cream is best, but I didn't have any)
I mixed the ingredients together, and added a bit more powdered sugar to thicken the frosting up since I used milk instead of cream. I then added some purple food color.

Daughter loved the look of the cake and pretty much just ate the frosting (she's always done that). My mom and hubby, who don't like super chocolaty desserts, liked the cake, as well. And the chocolate cake stays super moist. There were a dozen family members who came to the get-together for her birthday, and the cake went around perfectly without a whole lot leftover.

Since my birthday is only 3 days after my daughters, I was pretty much caked-out, so I certainly didn't make my own cake. Natalie thought hubby should make me a cake, and he pretty much laughed at that. But he did cook dinner and we went out to eat over the weekend.

My dad wanted to have a little get together at my brother's house to surprise my  mom for her birthday. My brother and sister-in-law took care of the food, and I volunteered to worry about the cake. I had  everything I needed at home to make one, so I opted to make a cake instead of buying one.

Mom usually prefers a chocolate-yellow marble cake (which I've never tried to do), and her favorite frosting is the whipped cream-type frosting, since it isn't too sweet like butter cream can be. I never made that type of frosting before, so decided to try it out.

For the cake, I made the chocolate cake recipe (see link above), and reduced the amount of boiling water by about half.

I also made batter for a yellow cake:

Yellow cake
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  1. Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl.
  2. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix flour and baking powder. 
  4. Add flour alternately with milk to the butter mixture, stirring well after each addition (end with the flour mixture). Add vanilla, mixing well.
To make the marble cake, I used a 14.5''x11''x2'' sheet cake pan, which was lightly greased and floured. I poured about 1/3 of the chocolate cake batter in the bottom of the pan. Then, I took a large spoon, and spooned the yellow cake batter in several spots on top of the chocolate batter (making the pan look like a domino -- I used about 1/4 to 1/3 of the yellow cake batter). Next, I took a large knife and ran it through the batter in several swirling motions until the pattern was visually appealing. I poured the remaining yellow cake batter on top of the marbled batter, added a little more chocolate cake batter, and ran the knife through the batter again. (I had enough chocolate batter left to make about 4 cupcakes.)

I wasn't sure how long to bake the cake, so I started it off at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes. The center wasn't cooked, so I added more time. In total, the cake cooked for about 40-45 minutes. I let the cake cool for a while before flipping it out of the pan to finish cooling.

The whipped cream frosting was really simple to make ... it just took a little time:

Whipped cream frosting
  • 6 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 9 to 12 Tablespoons granulated sugar (depending on taste)
  1. Take a large mixing bowl and whisk attachments to a stand or hand mixer and place in the freezer for about 5 minutes.
  2. Remove bowl and whisks from freezer. Add whipping cream to bowl and, on medium-high speed, whisk cream until it starts to thicken.
  3. Reduce speed of mixer to medium-low, and gradually add in sugar. Continue to whisk until the cream starts to thicken to desired consistency.
I didn't time how long it actually took for the frosting to get to the right consistency ... probably at least 10 minutes ... it felt like forever, but when you're eagerly watching something, time tends to seem like FOREVER. You can add some vanilla extract after you add the sugar, and can create different flavors (chocolate, etc), too.

I used the frosting plain, and mostly used the white. I iced the entire cake in white, and then took a few cups from the remaining frosting and added food coloring. (The extra frosting I had, I used for the cupcakes I made.)

Not the prettiest decorated cake (at least, I certainly don't think so), but the family liked how it looked and LOVED how it tasted. Almost everyone went back for seconds on the cake, and my parents took some home, and I left some for my brother and sister-in-law. Definitely a winner, and hubby even asked for me to make a cake for his birthday in January (when the next round of birthdays start again!).

For now, I think the cake baking is done for a while! I'm getting family requests to make batches of cookies, and, now that it's football season, I have everyone looking for hot wings and quesadillas. I think my next big batch of baking will definitely be for the holidays, so, until then, I will look to focus my cooking energy on dinner options!

Friday, September 6, 2013

PEACHES!

I often find it odd that, as a North Carolinian, when I'm asked about or talk to someone about certain fruits or vegetables, there's an assumption that said product is better from a state outside of NC. Most people really don't realize how many delicious fruits and veggies grow right here in the Tar Heel state.

Take peaches, for instance. A lot of people assume that if you're eating a peach, it's from Georgia or South  Carolina. But NC has plenty of peach orchards, and they are just as good if not better than our neighbors' offerings.

Carolina Grown has worked with Parker's Orchard in Moravian Falls for going on 3 seasons now. The peaches are some of the best quality I've seen, and both yellow and white varieties are available. The orchard also has plums and a variety of apples, many heirloom varieties. Apple season starts in late summer and, depending on Mother Nature, can last into December.

I got my hand on some HUGE delicious white peaches this past week, which was the last week of Parker's peach season. Now, I'll be honest, I'm not a big fan of peaches, but I like them from time to time. But I do like fruit desserts, so decided to try a peach cake.

It was my first attempt at making any sort of "upside down" cake, and it really turned out quite delicious. I ended up making 2 cakes because of how large the peaches were, so my co-workers got to enjoy it, as well.

Peach upside down cake
  • 3 medium white peaches, or 1 to 1.5 large peaches, pit removed and sliced into medium sized slices
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
For cake batter
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  2. Butter (or grease) a 9-inch cake pan. Arrange peach slices on bottom of cake pan in a single layer.
  3. Melt 1/2 cup butter and mix in light brown sugar. Pour mixture on top of peaches in the cake pan.
  4. To make the cake batter, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Set aside.
  5. Next, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, stirring well after each mixture. Add vanilla, and then add milk, stirring for about a minute. 
  6. Add flour mixture to liquid/batter mixture until all flour is well mixed. 
  7. Pour or spoon batter mixture into the cake pan over the peaches.  Spread evenly.
  8. Bake on center rack in the oven for about 45 minutes, or until toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool for about 5 minutes.
  9. Invert a plate over the pan and flip over -- invert the cake pan onto the plate to remove the cake. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Getting back in the groove

I don't know about the rest of you moms out there, but it's been a bit of an adjustment with the school year having started. I have to get used to getting up earlier than I'd like to be sure I can get my 6-year-old to school in time. My 2-year-old son is needier since his playmate isn't at home during the day anymore. And the kiddo decided she didn't want to ride the bus this year, and so most afternoons, I'm picking her up from school (actually, this doesn't bother me too much, since she gets home significantly earlier than if I let her ride the bus ... this makes homework time so much easier!).

Between getting back into the swing of things for the school year, and working more for the family business, I haven't had a lot of inspiration to try something new.

But I did have some beautiful, thick center-cut pork chops this week. The issues was finding the motivation to cook and figuring out how I wanted to prepare them. I decided to keep it pretty simple and pan seared them and finished them in the oven. They turned out delicious and juicy. I served them with a side of sauteed green beans. The leftovers have made for a good lunch for hubby this week, too.

Seared thick-cut pork chops
  • 3 thick, center cut pork chops
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Onion powder, garlic powder, and oregano (or other seasonings) to taste
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Heat a large skillet on high heat. (You can melt 2 tablespoons of butter in skillet, but not necessary -- just adds a little flavor. If you want the chops a bit healthier/less fatty, omit the butter.)
  3. Rub chops with olive oil on both sides. Then, apply the salt, pepper, and seasonings to chops, rubbing into the meat.
  4. Once skillet is hot, add chops. Cook on first side until the chop is evenly seared and the hot pan naturally releases the meat (the meat no longer sticks to the pan), about 5 minutes (depending on thickness). Repeat on other side, and on fatty edges of the pork chop. Remove skillet from burner, and put in stove to finish cooking, about 10 to 15 minutes. 
  5. Remove from oven. Let meat rest for at least 5 minutes on a serving plate or platter before cutting and serving.

Monday, September 2, 2013

NC Flounder

Hi, everyone! It's been a while since I've been on the blog, and I thank Connie Jo Lewis for her delicious crab cakes recipe. Yum! Will definitely be trying that one soon!

One of the last blogs I posted, I mentioned a back injury. FINALLY healed up from that one. Everything has been busy. I've been working with the kids to take my house back over from the clutter and keep up with working from home.

I healed up with a few weeks to spare as the family made a long road trip in July. We spent a day in NYC (somewhere we had never gone) and took a bus tour around the city. Gave us a good idea of sites we want to see as we plan future trips. We finally made our way up to NH, and celebrated my grandfather's 80th birthday. We got to see my mom's youngest sister while we were in New England ... she also loves to cook, and made us a delicious lasagna for our first night in NH. (We were lucky to spend the week with my parents, as well as with my brother and sister-in-law, as well.) We hit Newick's for delicious seafood our second night up there, and Joe and I took the kids to the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Of course, you know, after spending a week on vacation, we came back to more work than we knew what to do with! School started for Natalie last week, so it's been an adjustment, too.

I haven't really spent a lot of time trying new recipes, but really relying on very quick reliable recipes I've used time and again.

The other week, I made fried flounder. It's quick, easy, and hubby enjoyed the leftovers (cold) to eat for lunch the next day.

Fried flounder
  • 1 lb fresh flounder fillets
  • flour
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • cayenne pepper
  • onion powder
  • garlic powder
  • vegetable oil
  1. In a large skillet, heat vegetable oil.
  2. Meanwhile, add flour to a large dish or bowl. Mix in seasonings to taste. 
  3. Once oil is hot, coat flounder fillets with flour mixture. Fry for about 3 to 5 minutes, or when crust is golden. Flip to other side and fry until golden. Remove from oil to a paper-towel lined plate.
I served with okra chips ( http://carolinagrown.blogspot.com/2012/08/asking-for-seconds.html) and oven-roasted red potatoes.