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    Recent Cooking Adventures 

    This weekend, I decided to make some Irish fare to celebrate St. Patty's Day, knowing we wouldn't be out in full regalia drinking green beer. So I decided on Ina Garten's Irish Soda Bread recipe and we enjoyed the bread with breakfast on Saturday. The currants give it a nice tartness and the orange zest and buttermilk adds a needed tang. However, this bread is similar to scones in that it's best enjoyed right after baking (tastes very dry the next day). It's a beautiful addition to any breakfast or brunch and very quick to prepare.

    On Sunday night, I decided to make a recipe from the new Pioneer Woman cookbook. Her first cookbook has provided me with many favorites, such as an often-requested recipe for chicken potpie and Yankee pot roast. She does comfort food really, really well and is usually my first stop when looking for a homey Sunday-type of dinner recipe.

    I ended up making her White Chicken Enchiladas. Whoa, they were spicy (2 jalapenos!) but delicious. As it often goes, one element of the recipe didn't work perfectly (sorry to say) so you do need to rely upon your own cooking skills to make adjustments or changes. The chicken and roasted pepper filling ended up being a bit of a bust, as I needed to strain out most of the braising liquid before filling the tortillas, but the flavors were delicious and each bite satisfied that cheesy craving for Mexican food.

    Yesterday, I made the Pioneer Woman's Honey-Plum-Soy Chicken for a client. The recipe called for 20 oz of soy sauce (2 bottles!), which was quickly cited as a red flag. I brought it down to 5 oz (or half a bottle) of low-sodium soy sauce. And instead of 8 bone in-skin on chicken thighs, I used 4 thighs and 4 breasts, peeling off the skin after browning and before braising. Just a couple of simple things that ended up saving the recipe from disaster. The sauce was delectable - rich in flavor and sweet and salty, but not overally so. The chicken was moist and stained red from the wine, but not fatty from the excess skin. All in all a win! I served it over jasmine rice, topped with scallions, instead of egg noodles, in order to soak up more the sauce. Another tip: there's a lot of sauce in this recipe, so if you make it, you may want to remove the chicken after an hour and a half, and reduce down the sauce before serving.

    I definitely recommend both of her cookbooks, but you do have to have your wits about you when using the recipes. Don't be afraid to trust your judgement and make changes as you see fit.

    Last week, I celebrated the launch of The Naptime Chef's cookbook with Kelsey Banfield. I worked with Kelsey to test every single recipe in her cookbook - and am so proud of her and the book! It's an excellent cooking resource filled with so many amazing and inspired recipes (chicken curry, peanut butter pie, eggnog cheesecake, zucchini bites, artichoke lasagna - the list goes on...) and even though the primary audience is families, her message appeals to everyone: no matter how busy you are, there are ways to fit in satisfying, delicious and homecooked meals into your lives. 


    Table for One: Steak Dinner 

    I know... radio silence. It's been a remarkably busy couple of weeks! First, I came down with a case of the flu. Achy, feverish, exhausted, limited appetite - everyone knows the symptoms. I used to think the only downside of being a freelancer was having to manage a complicated and ever-changing schedule. But I quickly learned the other downside: you're sick? You don't work. And there is no such thing as a 'sick day.'

    But fortunately I'm feeling like my old self this week (I think these smoky and sweet baby back ribs on Sunday night helped)! And before that, I was working every day for one of my private chef clients, in addition to teaching 6 - 7 children's cooking classes a week and working for another client. It was a runaround pace - but it felt good. 

    Now I'm back to more reasonable hours and have a delicious Table for One recipe. On Monday, one of my clients asked for a last-minute outdoor barbecue surprise as a result of the beautiful and unseasonably warm weather. I love all surprises including food and was excited to start cooking. Someone else manned the grill, but I made a homemade chocolate frosted cake, Caprese salad, another one of my favorite salads, baked beans and guacamole - in addition to a hefty fruit platter. It was all so casual, so pleasant and so gorgeous out, that I knew I had to make myself something special once I got home.

    On the way, I stopped at Citarella's and was taken in by a big, rosy filet mignon steak. I'll admit - 8 oz is too much for one person, but I wasn't feeling super reasonable and I was so thrilled to have my appetite back! I bought a bunch of crunchy green asparagus (wistfully imagining it was spring) and some baby Yukon gold potatoes.

    Once home, I trimmed the asparagus and scrubbed the potatoes. I set the oven to 425 degrees and chopped up the potatoes into small pieces (the only way they'll roast quickly without parboiling). I tossed the asparagus and potatoes with plenty of olive oil, salt and pepper and placed them on a foil-lined baking sheet. The potatoes got a sprinkling of freshly chopped rosemary. In the oven they went for 40 minutes, to be flipped half-way through baking.

    I used some briney sea salt to sprinkle on top of my filet and some freshly cracked black pepper - and then let it sit out at room temperature for 20 minutes. I melted 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter with 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil in an oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Once melted and very hot, I added the steak (make sure there's a big sizzle - if not, immediately take it out of the skillet and let the oil/butter mixture become hotter). I seared the steak on one side for 4 minutes and then flipped it with tongs for another 4 minutes. I carefully drained out most of the butter/oil mixture into a separate bowl (you don't want the excess fat spraying all over your oven) and placed the skillet and steak in the oven with the potatoes and asparagus. I left the steak in the oven to finish cooking for 10 minutes.

    While the steak was roasting, I made a quick steak sauce out of some condiments I had in the fridge. I whisked together 1 T sour cream, 1/2 T Dijon mustard and 1/2 T horseradish with a little pepper. The steak (cooked to medium - roast it longer if you want it more done) and vegetables were ready to come out at the same time. Remember! Don't reach for the skillet with bare hands - make sure you use a pot holder (this comes from someone who has made this mistake before). Let the steak rest 5 minutes and squeeze some lemon on the asparagus.

    This meal was reminiscent of a steak house dinner. Juicy, satisfying and (almost) unbelievably easy. It takes a bit of time, but is worth it when you have some time to spare. It felt luxurious to treat myself to something beyond a typical dinner of leftovers or snack food (yogurt, banana). Happily, I created my own barbecue surprise.


    Guest Post on The Naptime Chef 

    My friend Kelsey posted a few recipes from me on her wonderful blog The Naptime Chef. I created a winter cocktail spread complete with recipes for a Hot Toddy with Meyer Lemons and Ginger; Mediterranean Infused Olives; and Brown Butter Date Spread. Kelsey and I worked together on her book, which is (finally!) available for sale on Amazon. I'm so excited to read my copy!

    One clarification: If or when you make the Brown Butter Date Spread, be sure to add the balsamic vinegar and brown sugar (optional) to the brown butter before you add the butter mixture to the Medjool dates.



    Remember White Bread? 

    In one of my cooking classes, I read out loud the book The Sandwich Swap. While a tad heavy handed in terms of a social message, it's an overall wonderful story about two girls from different backgrounds. One brings in a daily lunch of pita stuffed with hummus and cucumbers. The other girl brings in a daily lunch of a peanut butter and jelly on white bread. So I brought in ingredients for both sandwiches and the students made each sandwich and then voted on their favorite. The butter (didn't use peanut butter) and jelly sandwich won by a long shot, but making hummus was a fun activity.

    For my second class, I had only two students, both of whom are older. They asked if we could make toast in a skillet with butter. After one bite of a piece of white bread, soaked in some butter, and crisped - I was hooked. How long has it been since you've had toasted white bread?!? For me, it's been a long, long time.

    We always buy health bread for our weekend toast or whole wheat English muffins. And if I'm making sandwiches, I'll usually buy ciabatta (which I know is technically an Italian white bread, but is a little more special than your average supermarket loaf of white bread) or whole wheat, even though everyone knows white bread makes killer grilled cheeses. On my way home, I picked up a loaf of country white bread for the weekend.

    Using toasted white bread, I made my husband a smoked turkey and swiss cheese sandwich with whole-grain mustard, tomatoes and sliced red onions and pickles on the side. For the Superbowl, I made turkey reubens with sauerkraut and horseradish sauce on the same toasted white bread.


    And for breakfast as a special treat on Sunday, we had melty and sweet french toast, topped with ripe slices of banana. French toast is incredibly easy and fast to make first thing in the morning. By the time I was done, we had a fresh pot of hot coffee brewed to drink alongside.

    There are so many ways to make this breakfast favorite extra special. Add coconut extract or almond extract to the egg mixture. Or use challah or brioche bread (I would have done this if we had either loaf handy). You can also warm up the maple syrup and serve it alongside in a pitcher or dust the top of your french toast with confectioner's sugar.

    We went for simple and fast, but this a great, basic recipe for a morning treat (and fabulous way to use up any leftover white bread).

    French Toast

    Serves 2 - 3

    4 - 6 slices white bread (can substitute any other eggy bread such as challah or brioche)

    2 - 3 tablespoons unsalted butter

    1 1/2 cups whole milk

    2 large eggs

    1 teaspoon vanilla extract

    3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

    1 pinch salt

    1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

    1/8 teaspoon cardamom (optional)

    1/4 cup light brown sugar

    Maple syrup, for topping

    Bananas or fresh fruit, for topping

    Optional: Confectioner's sugar, for dusting

    1. Stack your bread on a plate. Place your saute pan (large enough for 2 slices to cook at once) on the stove. Find some tongs and a spatula.

    2. Heat your pan over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter.

    3. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, spices and sugar until combined. Use your tongs to dip in one piece of bread at a time, turning it until coated and carefully placing in the saute pan. Be careful - if you leave the bread in the bowl too long, it will absorb too much liquid and begin to disintegrate and turn to mush. You want the slice of bread to soak up enough of the egg mixture, but retain its texture.

    4. Once the butter is melted, saute both pieces of bread for about 1 - 2 minutes per side, until golden brown and cooked through. Serve warm with desired toppings.

    5. Repeat for remaining 2 pieces of bread and 1 tablespoon of butter, if desired.

    6. Once the pan is again empty, add another tablespoon of butter to melt and begin the dipping process again. You are making these 'to order' because you don't want the bread to fall apart in the mixture. If you're only serving 2 people, you may not need the remaining 2 slices.


    Greek-Inspired Ratatouille 

    Don't you want to just dive into this pan of sauteed vegetables?! They're a thing of beauty, despite the lousy photography.

    I've been on a seafood kick recently. Last week, we had tuna steaks with a jicama and fennel slaw. On Monday night, we had swordfish and shrimp marinated in white wine. I then sent them into the oven to slowly roast in a sauce of (more) white wine, plumped raisins, diced tomatoes, capers and sauteed onions. The end result was deliciously flaky and flavorful fish, topped with plenty of fresh mint, which really didn't need a side. With a little rice, this would've been more than enough. 

    But I had some large Yukon gold potatoes left over from a ill-informed Fresh Direct order. Not ill-informed per se, more like I mistakenly ordered potatoes by number instead of pounds - therefore ended up with 8 very large and looming Yukons. We don't eat a lot of potatoes, despite my husband's German background and I couldn't figure out what to make with the extras, despite the heady temptation of creamy mashed potatoes, cheesy and bubbly gratin and hearty baked versions.

    However, the potatoes have been sneaking their way into turkey chili and other soups. But I've noticed the diner tends to put down his or her fork half-way through. "The potatoes make it so hot." or "I'm full already!" So I've just let them sit on the counter, slowly awaiting their spoiling doom.

    But with Greek-inspired sauteed vegetables, the addition of potatoes provides a real backbone to the dish. Without them, you'd miss the substance and the heft. They're creamy and crispy and hold in the delicious Mediterranean flavors, which somehow tend to wash over other vegetables like bell peppers and zucchini. The potatoes are actually essential.

    The key to this dish is to let the vegetables really soften and become meltingly tender. They will still retain a bit of their texture but you'll extract more flavor by letting them get nice and juicy. And the feta cheese crumbled on top really makes the dish. You can skip it, but I don't think that's a good idea. The wine is an important step: it creates a syrupy, vegetable reduction which coats the dish and helps the vegetables glide across the bottom of the pan.

    Serve these Greek-inspired ratatouille with simply-prepared fish or chicken. I'm planning to toss my leftovers into a pasta salad, along with some chopped kalamata olives and the remaining feta.

    Greek-Inspired Ratatouille

    Serves 4

    1 tablespoon olive oil

    1 yellow onion, chopped

    1 medium Yukon gold potato, diced

    1 red bell pepper, diced

    1 zucchini, diced

    1/4 cup dry white wine

    1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

    1 teaspoon dried basil

    3/4 teaspoon dried oregano

    1 dash crushed red pepper flakes

    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

    1/4 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

    1/3 cup feta cheese, crumbled.

    1. Heat the olive oil until shimmering over medium-high heat in a large saute pan. Add the onions and potatoes and saute for approx. 7 minutes, or until the potatoes begin to tenderize and stick to the bottom of the pan.

    2. Add the remaining diced vegetables and cook for another 3 - 5 minutes, until they've softened. If the vegetables seem to be sticking too much to the pan, turn the heat down to medium.

    3. Add the wine and use a wooden spoon to scrap up any caramelized bits on the bottom of the pan. Cook until the wine is reduced by 1/2, about 3 - 4 minutes.

    4. Add the mint, spices and seasoning. Turn the heat to medium-low to low, and allow the vegetables to continue to cook, about 15 more minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking. 

    5. At this point, the vegetables should be incredibly aromatic and soft. Test the potatoes - if you can easily pierce through a couple of pieces with a fork and they crumble, they're ready. If there's resistance, cook longer and test again.

    6. Crumble the feta cheese on top. Serve with roasted fish or chicken.