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 Parmigiano 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! ;~)

Anywhooo, I don't always have a quart of my homemade Sunday Gravy in the freezer, but I still get cravings for pasta with an Italian style tomato based sauce every now and then. So, when the need for a little fix of red sauce arises, I head to the freezer and pantry, grab the ingredients needed and I whip up a quick marinara or meat sauce. Today, I'm gonna share my Thick and Hearty Meat Sauce recipe, but for those of you who aren't big fans of meat sauces, I'll be posting the hubber's totally amazing marinara sauce recipe, at some point in the not too distant future. really is amazing.

Thick and Hearty Meat Sauce (for pasta)
  • 1 Lb Meatloaf/Meatball Mix
  • 1 28oz Can Crushed Tomatoes
  • 1 14oz Can Diced Tomatoes
  • 1 Med Green Bell Pepper, chopped
  • 1 Med Yellow Onion, chopped
  • 2-3 Cloves Fresh Garlic, minced
  • 1/4 Cup Dry White Wine or Dry Vermouth
  • 1/2 Tsp each Dried Oregano and Dried Basil
  • 1 Tsp each Onion Powder and Garlic Powder
  • Kosher Salt and Fresh Ground Black Pepper
  • Light Olive Oil
  • Your favorite hearty pasta. (No wimpy spaghetti or angel hair with this sauce)

Roughly chop the bell peppers and onions and mince the garlic. If I have any carrots on hand, I'll add them in to give the sauce a touch of sweetness, but I chop them smaller than the onions and peppers. I'd recommend a fine dice because they take a bit longer to cook and this isn't a long-simmering sauce. As you can see, I didn't have any carrots this time. :~)

On occasion, I use ground beef alone if it's all I have on hand, but the meatloaf/meatball mix is so much better in this sauce. As far as I know, most major grocery stores carry some version of it, either in the meat case or at the butcher counter. It's usually a combination of beef, veal and pork, but you'll sometimes see a mix of just beef and pork, or just pork and veal. If you're dead set against veal, you can also substitute ground turkey. Try to find a 3 meat version if you can, but a 2 meat combo will work. If push comes to shove, you can also buy the three types of ground meats separately.

I try not to use vegetable oils anymore for a couple of reasons. 1) I prefer the slightly higher smoking point and the health benefits of olive oils. I save my good extra virgin olive oil as a "finishing oil" on pasta dishes, roasted vegetables and Caprese salads, for example. 2) It's much too expensive and in many cases, too heavy for sauteing meat or making a vinaigrette. 

Plus, there's been a lot of bad press about vegetable oils and shortening lately. The short of it is that most vegetable and nut oils are chemically extracted (with things like petroleum solvent!!), they're hydrogenated (also chemically) and the seeds that they come from, are usually from genetically modified crops. Now, I'm not usually one to jump onto my soapbox here on the blog, but this is serious stuff and it's seriously affecting people's health.

In a large skillet, saute the green pepper and onion in a little light olive oil. When they're just starting to soften and become a little translucent, add in the minced garlic and cook for another 1-2 minutes.

Add the white wine or vermouth and bring it to a brisk simmer. Cook this until the liquid is reduced by 2/3 and slightly syrupy. (you can substitute beef or chicken stock if you wish to avoid the alcohol, but do keep in mind that when used in cooking, the alcohol itself evaporates during the reduction and leaves only the yummy flavor behind)

Remove the pepper, onion and garlic mixture to a small bowl and set it aside.

In the same pan, add the ground meat and cook over medium to medium-high heat, breaking it up into small pieces as it cooks.

You can cook this long enough to brown the meat if you'd like - it will definitely add flavor, but to be honest, I didn't feel like taking the extra time that night and well... we were hungry. lol

Add the peppers, onions and garlic back to the pan and stir well to combine.

Add in the can of crushed tomatoes and the can of diced tomatoes (with their liquid) and season with the oregano, basil, onion powder, garlic powder and salt and pepper. Give it a good stir to incorporate the seasoning.

Partially cover the pan and let the sauce cook over low heat for about 20 to 30 minutes, until it's nice and thick and the flavors have all married well. Taste for seasoning and add a bit more of anything you think is lacking, if needed. I added a pinch more salt to mine at this point.

While the sauce is simmering, start your pasta water. When it comes to a boil, salt the water liberally and add your pasta. Cook according to the package directions. As I stated up above in the recipe section, please don't use a skinny old pasta like spaghetti with this sauce. You really need a nice hearty noodle, like fettuccine (which is what I used here) tagliatelle, or my favorite pasta, EVER... pappardelle! Oh, how I love that stuff. It's actually a good thing that I have a hard time finding it in our local grocery stores, or I'd probably be cooking up a batch every night of the week! A hearty cut pasta like rigatoni or campanelle would work well, too.

Mmmmm, Mmmmm. We're talkin' serious comfort food...
Serve your meat sauce over the pasta with a bit of freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese and...



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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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