Friday, May 31, 2013

Thick and Hearty Meat Sauce (for pasta)

As most of you know by now, I'm a pasta-holic.

I love pasta with everything from traditional red sauces to butter or olive oil with a little garlic and freshly grated parmegiano reggiano. And my addiction doesn't stop there... Oh, no. Not by a long shot. I love cold pasta just as much. I sorta can't believe that I'm gonna out myself like this, but it wouldn't be a stretch to find me standing in front of the fridge at 2 AM, with a fork in one hand and a big old bowl of macaroni salad in the other. Um, don't any of you out there be judging me, now. Uh-huh. You know who you are. At least macaroni salad has vegetables in it. (well... mine does, anyway) That's gotta be healthier than that tub of Duncan Hines fudge frosting, any day! Ha! ;~)

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Salad Bar ~ Creamy Gorgonzola Dressing (Blue Cheese)

I've been making my own Blue Cheese Dressing for about 15 years. Prior to that, I never really cared for it much. The only exceptions were a few "house made" versions, from a handful of restaurants. I've tried several store bought or bottled versions over the years, but I've always come away disappointed by what I can only describe as... a funky aftertaste. I don't know if it's the result of too much vinegar, not enough sugar, or maybe it's from chemicals or preservatives, but whatever it is, not a single one that I've tried has ever come close to tasting like homemade. So, what do I usually do when I'm faced with this kind of dilemma? I made my own, of course!

This was a tough one, though. I think I went through 5or 6 incarnations before I finally had the balance I was looking for. Now, this recipe is to my taste (and my family's too) and I've had requests from friends and family, but you might prefer more or less of one ingredient or another. And that's OK. After all, that is what cooking is all about, right? When you taste and/or season your food as you're preparing it, you're more likely to end up with something that satisfies you and your family. I do hope that you try this recipe, but I encourage you to experiment with the ingredients. Just consider this as a kind of starting point.

...and have fun with it!

Creamy Gorgonzola Dressing
  • 1 Cup Sour Cream
  • 1/2 Cup Real Mayonnaise
  • 8oz Blue Cheese, crumbled (For this recipe, I used Gorgonzola)
  • 1 Tsp Brown Sugar (heaping)
  • 1 Tsp Worcestershire Sauce
  • 1-2 Tbls White Balsamic or Red Wine Vinegar
  • 1 Tbls Dried Minced Onion
  • Salt
** This recipe doubles or triples quite nicely and will last in your fridge for up to a week, tightly covered, in a non-reactive (no metal) container.

Start by combining the dried minced onion and vinegar in a small ramekin or bowl. Set it aside to allow the onions to rehydrate.

You might be wondering why I use dried minced onions. Well, there is a reason and it's about balance. Now, I've never been very good at chemistry, but there's actually quite a bit of it involved in cooking. We generally don't think about cooking as a science, but we do have a pretty good idea of what tastes good to us and what doesn't. The first time I ever made homemade bleu cheese dressing, I used grated fresh onions and found them to be much too harsh. The raw bite of the onion totally overpowered the flavors of the sour cream and the bleu cheese.

You want that subtle onion-y flavor, but you don't want it to be the first thing that you taste in a creamy, cheesy dressing. Dried onions are much milder than their fresh counterparts, but they need to be re-hydrated in some way. You could use water, but that wouldn't add anything extra to the overall flavor of the dressing.

In a small mixing bowl, combine the sour cream, mayonnaise, brown sugar, the Worcestershire and salt, adding 2/3 of the Gorgonzola. Set the rest aside. If you're not really a fan of mayonnaise, you can always use a cup and 1/2 of the sour cream. The dressing will be a little more tart or tangy, because the mayo is what helps to balance out the acidity in the sour cream, but it will still be very tasty!

Stir the mixture together (you could use a whisk or a fork) exerting a fair bit of pressure to help mash the cheese crumbles into the rest of the ingredients. This helps to disperse the rich flavor of the cheese more fully and also helps to thicken the consistency.

Add in the rehydrated onions. If there's more than a tablespoon of the vinegar left in the ramekin, you might want to drain off a wee bit. Mine had a only a bit more than a teaspoon left over, so I added all of it.

Like salt, vinegar gives a little flavor boost to a lot of foods (some that you would never expect, like a dark chocolate cake!) and it's acidity helps to cut through some of the richness of a creamy dressing like this. Of course, some vinegars are more or less acidic than others, so re-hydrating the dried onions in a slightly sweet vinegar, like the white balsamic or a red wine vinegar, helps to soften it's bite as well. So, they really do compliment each other... and the dressing.

Then, add in the remaining 1/3 of the Gorgonzola and stir gently to combine. If you prefer a completely smooth dressing, you can add all of the Gorgonzola at the beginning and mash it all at once.

Cover the bowl with a little cling wrap or a tight fitting lid and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, to allow all of the flavors to marry. I always taste the dressing at this point, to check for seasoning and more often than not, I end up adding an extra pinch or two of salt. I've found that dressings and dips made with sour cream will usually need a bit more salt, but it's really all about personal tastes.

We had Blue Cheese Chicken Salads, but you can serve yours over your favorite fresh greens, or you can go the classic route and serve it alongside your favorite spicy chicken wings or chicken fingers. It also makes a great dip for fresh veggie platters and as a creamy, tangy topper for roast beef sandwiches. Whatever you choose to do with this dressing...



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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Side Board ~ Garlic Butter and Parsley Hasselback Potatoes

I know. I'm coming in pretty late in the game to the whole hasselback thing. You're probably thinking "been there, done that", but I'll be honest with you... when I first saw them popping up all over Pinterest, I just couldn't figure out what the big deal was. Don't get me wrong. I'm all over a good potato. I mean, I am Irish, after all. And sure, the pictures were gorgeous. And yes, people were raving about them and pinning them like crazy... but it wasn't really a new concept to me. I was the one thinking, "been there, done that".

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Open Faced Ham, Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sammies!

On Sunday mornings, the hubbs and I like to go out for breakfast when we can, but on those occasions when we don't, we'll usually whip up something a little bit more substantial than a bowl of cereal or our typical weekday fare, which is basically just a cup or two of coffee. (I know... shame on us!) All in all, it's just nice to have that time together, where we can slow life down a bit to enjoy a meal and just be together. As mundane as it might sound, it's one of the many little secrets that help to keep our close to 35 years as a couple strong, stable and most importantly, happy.

More often than not it seems that our Sunday morning treat ends up being a breakfast sandwich of some kind. The ingredients will vary slightly, based on what we happen to have in the larder at that particualar time. On this morning, we had some "off the bone" style ham from the deli, finely shredded Colby-Jack cheese, one bagel and a half loaf of left over artisan bread from a local bakery. It was a Tuscan style bread... I think. 

Bagel, bagel... who gets the bagel? Well, this time, I drew the short straw and dear old hubby got the bagel, but to be honest, that was fine with me. I certainly enjoy a good bagel, but I'm also perfectly happy with a couple of slices of crusty toasted artisan bread. Hmmm. Come to think of it... Maybe I did get the better end of that deal. Whaddayathink?

Open Faced Ham, Egg and Cheese Breakfast "Sammies"
  • Bread, Hard Rolls, Bagels or English Muffins
  • Eggs
  • Ham (or Bacon or Sausage)
  • Cheese
  • Butter
  • Salt & Pepper

Just a note before I continue... It really helps if you have two people putting these sandwiches together, in a kind of assembly line fashion, because, 1. It all comes together pretty quickly and you want to keep all of the ingredients as hot or warm as possible and 2. It's actually more romantic that way. :~) (am I the only one noticing a theme here?)

OK. Start by preparing your bread, rolls, bagels, etc. You can pop them in the toaster or toaster oven, put them under the broiler for a minute or two, or grill them off in a heavy skillet. If you're using the broiler, skillet or a toaster oven, you can butter them before, or after. I like to toast or grill them first, then slather the butter on as soon as they're done. They turn out more brown and crunchy that way.

Next, in a large non-stick skillet, over medium to medium-high heat, fry up several slices of the ham. I don't do this in a stainless steel skillet because I'd have to add oil or butter to keep the meat from sticking. It's certainly not that I don't like butter, but there will be more than enough butter going into these sandwiches from the eggs (and the toast) by the time they're completed. Thinly sliced ham like this cooks up very quickly, so watch it closely and turn it a few times, just until the slices are heated through and lightly browned. You don't want it to be really crispy, like bacon. Well, I suppose you could, if you prefer it that way. Hah! Now that I've said that, it might not be such a bad thing. I'll have to try it some time...

Loosely pile the ham up on the bread/bagel/roll while it's still hot and add the cheese immediately. Doing this, as well as using a finely shredded cheese, will ensure that the cheese melts more quickly and it saves the added step of having to pop everything into the oven or under the broiler to melt the cheese.

These "sammies" make a quick and easy BFD ~ "breakfast for dinner", too. I'm sure you've done that before, right? We both grew up with mothers who made all types of BFD's, as did most of our friends. I don't know if it's a regional thing, or a generational one... All I know is that sometimes, this type of "fill up your belly without having to throw together a great big complicated dinner" meal is like comfort food for me. Every now and then, we'll feel a bit more fancy and we'll make French Toast or Eggs Benedict, instead. We probably have BFD about once a month. Especially in the colder weather.

I always crack my eggs into a separate bowl first. This way, I can see if there are any imperfections in the eggs, plus it makes it easier to slide them into the pan at the same time and that means that they'll cook more evenly. I guess you could call that a win/win/win situation?!

In the same non-stick skillet, melt a tablespoon of butter until it just begins to sizzle..

Slide the eggs into the pan and season them with some kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. I usually only fry 2 eggs at a time, because I'm an uncoordinated flipper. I've gotten better over the years, but try as I might, I still break one of the yolks about 50% of the time. We both prefer an over easy egg, but you can cook them any way you like. You can scramble them, poach them or make mini omelettes, if you prefer.

For over easy eggs, flip them over just as the whites are beginning to set and cook for about 45 seconds. If you prefer the yolks to be more firm, let them cook another minute. Any longer than that and you'll end up with rubbery eggs. To make sure that the yolk is fully cooked through, you can break it just before flipping. My brother always preferred his fried eggs that way. We called them "poked out" eggs.

Place the eggs on top of your crunchy, buttery, cheesy, hammy vehicle of choice and serve immediately.

Of course, I broke one of the yolks on the second batch. (as I said... it's 50/50) I kept that "poked out" egg for myself because, well... that's the kind of wife I am. ;~)

Mmmmm Mmmmm Good! Sounds like a great idea for Mother's Day breakfast in bed, doesn't it? Or maybe Father's Day... or Christmas morning... Or just good old fashioned BFD!? (Breakfast For Dinner)



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Monday, May 6, 2013

The Side Board ~ Steakhouse Spinach

This is a really quick and easy recipe. We call it "steakhouse spinach" but I think the original recipe is called creamed spinach casserole or something similar. We call it what we do, because there isn't any "cream" in it, but it would remind you of the creamed spinach that you get at high-end steak houses like Ruth's Chris or Hy's. We had it with prime rib and oven roasted potato wedges for this year's New Years Eve dinner.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

Hope everyone is enjoying the day and having lots of yummy Mexican and Tex-Mex goodies to eat! If you need any last minute ideas, I have some tried and true recipes here on the blog. Just click HERE for a post that's got a little of everything!

Or, if you'd just like to go directly to a specific recipe, click on the link below each of the following photos!

Tex-Mex Chicken Chili Soup HERE

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Creamy Avocado Dressing (Cinco de Mayo)

The first time that I ever tasted a creamy avocado dressing (at a local restaurant), I was hooked. The funny thing is... I really don't care that much for avocados. I know. You're probably saying to yourself, "How can anyone not love guacamole?" Well, they can. Or, can not... Oh, you know what I mean.

I don't hate the stuff. I'm not repulsed by it or anything. I actually make it pretty often for parties, or if my husband or our daughter requests it. I've just never felt that avocados had much flavor to them. Plus, I do believe there's a "texture thing" going on as well. They're, well... kind of slippery, if that makes any sense.

Anyway... I only tried the dressing because everyone in my dining party absolutely raved about it. They all said that it was the best dressing they'd ever had, yadda, yadda, yadda. So, I thought 'what the hey' and ordered it on my salad. Wow! Was I surprised! I could have seriously just ordered about three more bowls of salad with that dressing on it and called it a meal. (No, I didn't. But I sure thought about it.)

I looked around in the grocery stores and Walmart and even a couple of prissy little gourmet markets and some health food stores, but couldn't find a decent prepared avocado dressing, so I did what any desperate, food lovin', wannabe chef would do in those situations and set out to formulate one of my own. That was well over 20 years ago, when I really hadn't ventured that far into making my own salad dressings, so it was a bit like a chemistry experiment. It took a couple of tries, but I finally came up with the right mix and I've been making it ever since!

So, since Cinco de Mayo is just around the corner and since this dressing makes a fantastic substitute for sour cream with all kinds of Mexican dishes, I figured it would be the perfect time to share it with you!

Creamy Avocado Dressing
(approx 6 servings - it can easily be doubled)
  • 1 Large Ripe Avocado
  • 1 Cup Sour Cream
  • 1/2 Cup Real Mayonnaise (no salad dressing style, please)
  • 1/2 Cup Buttermilk (you can substitute with half & half or milk)
  • 1 Lg Shallot, quartered (or 1/4 of a red/purple onion)
  • 1 Tbls White Balsamic or Red Wine Vinegar
  • Fresh Parsley
  • Fresh Chives
  • Salt & Pepper

Cut the avocado in half (lengthwise) with a sharp knife. Twist it to pull it away from the pit. Carefully remove the pit with a spoon or with the blade of a large chef's knife, scoop out the flesh and cut it into large pieces. (if you've never done this before, I've included a short video with a quick demonstration, at the end of this post)

Place the chunks of avocado and the shallot quarters into the bowl of a small food processor or blender and pulse several times, until the ingredients are loosely mixed and are in relatively equal sized pieces. Remember to scrape down the sides of the bowl or blender as you pulse.

You could do this dressing in a bowl, by hand... but it would take a very sturdy fork and/or a heavy duty whisk to get it as smooth as it should be. It would also take a whole lot of good old fashioned elbow grease! My shoulders are starting to ache just thinking about it!

Add the vinegar, sour cream, mayo and salt & pepper and process or blend until you have a thick paste.

It will be slightly lumpy at this point and that's fine.

Pour in the about half of the buttermilk, to start and process for a few minutes longer. (If you don't care for the tanginess of buttermilk, or if you don't have it on hand, you can use half & half or milk.)

I forgot to take a picture after I added the chopped parsley and chives, but I did add them here.

I tasted the dressing at this point and felt that it needed about a teaspoon more of the vinegar and another hefty pinch of salt.

Remember... Always taste the food that you're preparing. Our taste buds (and meticulously clean hands) are the best tools that we have in the kitchen!

Continue to process until the dressing is smooth and pourable. This is where you would add the rest of the buttermilk or milk, if needed. I used all of it, but if the sour cream you are using isn't very thick or the avocado is more ripe, you might not need to.

The dressing doesn't have to be runny, but you want it to be thin enough to lightly coat the lettuce and other salad ingredients and not run immediately to the bottom of the salad bowl when you pour it on.

Pour the dressing into a bowl or pitcher and cover it with a lid or plastic wrap. Refrigerate it for at least one hour before serving. It will keep, covered tightly in the fridge, for up to a week. Serve this over your favorite salad mix, or use it in place of sour cream. Tip: It's incredible on a baked potato! Of course, you can also use it in place of sour cream with your favorite Mexican dishes, like tacos and quesadillas and... well, the list is endless!

I wish that I'd had some darker greens, so the dressing would have shown up better in my photos. But, all I had on hand was iceberg.

And for all of you "lettuce snobs" out there... you know who you are. Yes, I like iceberg lettuce! Don't get me wrong. I love all kinds of leafy greens, but iceberg absolutely has it's place in the mix. I mean, what would the classic "wedge salad" be, without iceberg lettuce??

Hmmm.... a wedge salad sounds pretty tasty, right now. Let's see. I have bacon. I have enough bleu cheese to make dressing and to use as crumbles. I have tomatoes and green onions and... Well, I'll just leave that for a future post. (um... based on how much my tummy is rumbling and my mouth is watering just from thinking about it, I'd say that it might not be too long before you see that post!)

How To Cut, Pit and Peel an Avocado


Happy Cinco de Mayo!

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