(Mini) Cottage pie

So, ok, when you’re engaged, you get to register for things at places that range from the sublime (Tiffany– not that this was one of ours) to the ridiculous (REI– and yes, I realize that this is not ridiculous for everyone, but rest assured that it is for me). This is one of the more awesome parts of being engaged (besides the obvious “getting hitched to that person you really like”), and something over which you have much more control than other parts of the wedding planning (particularly if you have insane vendors, etc.). At any rate, we are not here to talk about weddings. Or registries, really. What we are here to talk about, friends, are ramekins–or, more specifically, delicious things that you can put into them.

When they’re not precariously stacked in your kitchen cabinet (yeah, one fell and smashed on the floor just the other day; as it fell, I said aloud, “Well, it was bound to happen”), ramekins can house delights from creme brulee to souffle of all sorts, but the meal in question here is cottage pie. In a fit of Winter Darkness Comfort Food Neediness, I turned to the trusty Jamie Oliver and worked with what I had. What resulted was nothing short of ceramic-housed bliss.

Cottage Pie

Ingredients
Filling
about 1/2 lb ground beef [use more or less, depending on what sort of meat-to-veggie ratio you prefer]
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 or 2 stalks of celery, chopped
2 large carrots, peeled and cubed (about 1/4″ cubes)
2/3 cup of frozen peas (optional)
about 1/4 to 1/2 cup chicken broth
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried sage
Salt and black pepper to season

Topping
your favorite mashed potato recipe [I confess: I used instant. I am not the biggest mashed potato fan, and don’t–yet!– have a go-to recipe. Any suggestions?]

Method
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Heat the oil in a large frying pan and brown the ground beef.
3. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add the onions to the pan and cook until lightly browned.
4. Add the celery and carrots and cook for a couple of minutes before adding the beef, peas and herbs.
5. Add the chicken broth and season with salt and pepper to taste.
6. Cook over a low heat for about 20  minutes, adding a bit more broth if it seems too dry
7. Transfer the filling into individual ramekins or a large serving dish.
8. Top with mashed potatoes and score the top with a fork. You can either dot a little butter over the potatoes or spray a little olive oil over the top for extra browning. [I used a pastry bag to pipe the potatoes over the top. Using a star tip creates the little ridges that get extra browned and wonderfully crispy.]
9. Bake at 375 for approx 20 minutes, until golden.You may want to finish it off under the broiler for a little extra browning.

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Pistachio Pesto (feat. Chicken with Lemon-Caper Sauce)

Hello, food blogosphere! With this entry I can cement my contributor status, as this means I am finally contributing something. Anyone who has known me as long as Megan has knows my one food nemesis: pine nuts. (I’m allergic.) Now, I’m not one to go around feeling sorry for myself (lies) but today, I mourn all the years I have gone without the taste of pesto, as I tend to avoid it at restaurants. Since I never knew how lovely it tastes, it never occurred to me to make it my damn self. [Megan, am I allowed to say damn on the blog?]

I recently heard someone say they had made pesto sauce with pistachios instead of pine nuts, and it was just an easy-dinner kind of day, so I decided to try it out. All you really need to do is run a food processor and boil up some pasta and you get an incredibly flavorful dinner in a matter of minutes! LOVES IT! (I do want to apologize for not having a more impressive dish, but baby steps, people.)

PISTACHIO PESTO

Ingredients

  • 2 cups loosely packed basil leaves (make sure there’s no excess water)
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup roasted pistachios
  • 1 clove garlic [I used 2… I love garlic]
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Method

Using blender or food processor, add pistachios and garlic clove(s) and blend for a few seconds.

Add basil and parmesan cheese, blend. With the motor running, drizzle in the olive oil until the contents reach desired consistency.

Yields about 1 cup.

I’m boring, so I used the pesto for pasta (about 1.5 pounds of cooked pasta; enough to serve 6), but I’ve seen it used in a fingerling potato/haricots verts salad and as a garnish for soup. You can also use it as a spread on pizza, sandwiches, use it to top crostini for appetizers… so many possibilities! Refrigerate or freeze to store.

And because I feel like it’s too much of a tease to post the photo of the chicken and not tell you how to make it, you get a two-fer with this post! Wahoo! I feel a little like Oprah… (*You* get a recipe and *you* get a recipe… EVERYONE! GETS! A RECIPEEEE!)

This is a recipe I got from an Italian-American colleague of mine, modified a little bit by me. Because I think I’m cool like that, I guess.

CHICKEN WITH LEMON-CAPER SAUCE

Ingredients

  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 4-6 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • juice and zest of 1/2 lemon
  • large pinch of chopped flat (Italian) parsley
  • 3 tablespoons capers, drained

Method

Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat.

Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge 2 pieces of chicken in flour and place in hot skillet. (Make sure it’s *hot* and not just heating up, so it browns better!) Cook about 8 minutes on each side until golden brown. Transfer to warm platter. Add more oil if necessary and repeat with remaining chicken.

After chicken is done, brown the butter in the skillet. (I found a pretty good how-to page at allrecipes.com)  Lower the heat and add lemon juice (this will stop the butter from continuing to brown), lemon zest, capers and parsley. Add salt and pepper if desired. Remove from heat. Spoon over chicken and serve.

(The original recipe called for a couple tablespoons of shallots, as well, but the capers taste so strong that the omission didn’t make a huge difference.)

And there you have it!

Pasties! (Get your mind out of the gutter, food pervs)

As part of my Lenten Vegetarian Adventure, I was determined to try out some vegetarian recipes that I’d had bookmarked for quite some time. This one, from The Kitchn, is full of things that I love– yes, there’s a good amount of butter (I’m no Paula Deen, but clearly there is a reason for the current size of my ass), but these little hand pies are stuffed with butternut squash, one of my favorite fall/winter veggies. And for the carnivore in the house? Adjustments were made, and he ended up with the hand-pie version of a chicken pot pie (in short, some finagled bechamel, chicken, thyme, sage, peas, salt and pepper). I imagine that one of the best things about this recipe is that it presents so many variations within a single crust. The buttery, flaky crust is easily brought together in a food processor or with a pastry cutter (or, hell, even a couple of knives), and can house any manner of savory or sweet fillings.

Butternut Squash, Sage, and Parmesan Pasties
Makes 2 large or 4 small pasties
Original recipe posted by The Kitchn, October 16, 2009

Ingredients
Dough
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
Pinch of salt
2/3 cup chilled butter, cut into small pieces
6-8 tablespoons ice water

Filling
8 ounces butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1 cm cubes
1 medium red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon finely chopped sage
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted

Sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper (or black)
1 egg, beaten

Method
To make dough
Sift flour and salt into a large bowl. Using a pastry blender or knife, cut butter into flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add 1 tablespoon of ice water at a time, gently tossing between additions, until the dough just holds together. [All of this can be done with a food processor. Follow the same steps for adding ingredients, and pulse to combine and bring to the proper consistency.] Shape dough into a ball and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate at least 30 minutes before rolling out.

Before rolling out the dough, let it soften slightly so that it is malleable but still cold. On a lightly floured surface, roll it out to 1/8-inch thick. Cut out two circles using a plate or bowl as a guide.

To make pasties
Preheat oven to 375°F.

In a large bowl, combine butternut squash, onion, garlic, sage, parsley, Parmesan cheese, and pine nuts.

Spoon mixture over half of each dough round, leaving a 1-inch border around the edge. Sprinkle well with salt and pepper.

Moisten the edges of the dough with beaten egg. With cool hands, fold the pastry over and crimp the edges. Cut a small slit in the top of each pasty. Brush all over with beaten egg.

Bake until golden and cooked through, about 40 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

Crispy, cheese-stuffed eggplant fritters

We had something similar to this at our wedding, so when I came across this recipe I knew I just had to make it. And really, what’s not to love? It’s a fried ball of eggplant with a chunk of cheese in the middle. DONE. The process is  bit more laborious than I would usually recommend for an appetizer, but these are worth the effort if you’re looking to be slightly more impressive than prosciutto-wrapped melon (always an awesome, low-effort standby). Oh, and don’t fear the frying! It’s much less scary than actual deep-fat cooking.

Crispy Eggplant Fritters with Smoked Mozzarella

Adapted from a recipe in the August 2007 issue of Bon Appetit

Ingredients

2 large eggplants (2 pounds total)
1 1/4 teaspoons salt, divided
Olive oil (for brushing and frying)
2 large eggs
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/4 cups plain dry breadcrumbs, divided
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
4 ounces smoked mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 20 cubes) [You can also use Fontina, or another cheese that has a consistency similar to either of these two. See? Endless variety!]

Method

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut eggplants crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Place on layers of paper towels. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt; let stand 30 minutes. Brush 2 large baking sheets with oil.  Pat eggplant dry; arrange in single layer on prepared sheets. Brush lightly with oil. [This can get pretty oily– you can spray them with nonstick cooking spray if you like, or give them a spritz with olive oil rather than brushing. Eggplant is shockingly absorbent, really.] Bake until eggplant is tender and dry, about 1 hour. Cool slightly; chop coarsely.

Whisk 1 egg, grated Parmesan cheese, 1/4 cup breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in medium bowl. Stir in chopped eggplant (mixture will be soft). Spread 1 cup breadcrumbs on plate. Whisk 1 egg and flour in another bowl. Press and shape eggplant mixture into 1 1/4 -inch-diameter balls. Press 1 piece smoked mozzarella into center of each ball, making sure eggplant mixture covers cheese. Dip balls, 1 at a time, into egg batter; roll in breadcrumbs to coat. [This is discussed in cooking shows, I know, but try to have a “designated hand” for dipping in dry ingredients– crumbs, in this case– and another for dipping in wet ingredients. Things get pretty clumpy, otherwise.]

Pour enough oil into large skillet to reach depth of 1/4 inch; heat over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add balls to skillet; sauté until browned, turning often, about 4 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Serve with slightly warmed marinara or tomato sauce of your choice.

P.S. Maybe it was recipes like this that contributed to my 6-pound weight gain over Lent, when I foolishly decided to give up meat. I lasted about 33 days, but then noticed I was wobblier than usual. Turns out I was filling the void with cheese and carbs–my favorites!

Lemon icebox pie

On a recent weekend trip to Tahoe with a group of friends there were two upcoming birthdays among us. A girlfriend of one of the birthday boys wanted to whip something up, and didn’t want to mess with trying to bake a cake at Tahoe’s altitude (I don’t blame her– I am horrified by baking above, say, 1000 feet?). I knew this would be exactly the thing, despite the fact that I was initially mocked for making a semi-frozen dessert when it was snowing outside. And you know what? Where some might see the cold/cold combo as unfavorable, I like to think that they matched nicely. (Plus, I got to bring about half a pie home– but for that, I blame the pizzas that preceded the dessert.)

Lemon Icebox Pie (slightly adapted from More From Magnolia: Recipes from the World Famous Bakery and Allysa Torey’s Home Kitchen)

Ingredients
Crust:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, very soft
2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs [This is slightly less than a box. I don’t need to tell you what to do with the leftovers, right?]

Filling:
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
1-1/2 cups Lemon Curd Filling (recipe below)

Method
To make the lemon curd filling, you will need:
12 egg yolks, at room temperature
3 tablespoons grated lemon zest
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1-1/2 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut in small pieces

In a medium-size saucepan, whisk in the first 5 ingredients until thoroughly combined. Using a wooden spoon, stir constantly over medium heat. Cook about 20     minutes until thick and bubbly. Remove from heat and add the butter, one piece at a time, stirring to incorporate. Chill until firm (overnight in the fridge is preferable, but you can     definitely get away with much less time in the freezer).
**Makes 3-1/2 cups, or enough filling for 1 two-or-three layer cake, so you will have extra.     This is not an actual problem, because this lemon curd is miraculous and awesome on     everything from toast to pound cake to…teaspoons. (What? Don’t act like you’ve never done     something like that.)

To make the crust:
In a small bowl, combine the butter and the vanilla wafer crumbs. Press firmly into a lightly buttered 9-inch glass pie dish. Wrap tightly with plastic and place in the freezer for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the filling:
In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, beat the heavy cream until stiff peaks form. Gently fold in the Lemon Curd. Pour into the prepared crust and chill for at least 4 hours or overnight. Garnish with raspberries, blueberries, lemon slices, or more whipped cream.

Makes one 9-inch pie

Steak pizzaiola

So, Valentine’s Day. It’s an opportunity for couples everywhere (in the U.S., at least– I don’t know that other countries are as sucked into V-Day as we are) to overspend on all manner of clichés, from $50 bunches of roses to $125 per person prix fixe menus at a local bistro. I’m no Valentine’s Day grinch, but I am a broke-ass, cooking-obsessed grad student. Hence (and much to my own Valentine’s relief), it was determined that flowers would be kept non-traditional (daffodils, a welcome punch of brightness amid all this Bay Area midwinter gray), cards would be as non-sappy as possible, and  dinner would be prepared and eaten chez nous. But, oh…what to make?

There was a chunk of flank steak that had been purchased on sale at Safeway, waiting in the freezer to be made into fajitas– or so we thought. Turns out flank steak is exactly what Cook’s Illustrated suggests for use in steak pizzaiola! Lovers of Italian food (us) and red meat (him, mostly) that we are, it was settled. Steak pizzaiol’, as they would say in my mother-in-law’s native Staten Island, a simple Caesar salad, and an aptly named (for the holiday, though not exactly for us as a couple) bottle of local wine.

Steak Pizzaiola (very slightly adapted from The Best Italian Classics: A Best Recipe Classic by the Editors of Cook’s Illustrated)

Ingredients
1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes
1.5 pounds flank or skirt steak
salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
5 medium cloves garlic, minced or pressed through a garlic press
red pepper flakes, to taste
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 cup dry red wine
1 sprig fresh oregano
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley leaves

Method
1. Pulse the tomatoes and their juices in a food processor or blender to a coarse puree (about five 1-second pulses) and set aside.

2. Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 300 degrees. Season the meat liberally with salt and pepper to taste. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat until it just starts to smoke. Reduce the heat to medium, add the meat, and cook, not moving, until well-browned, about 4-5 minutes [seriously, don’t move it around– you want that browning to happen!]. Turn the meat with tongs and cook until well-browned o the second side, about 4-5 minutes. Transfer the meat to a clean plate and place the plate in the warm oven while assembling the sauce.

3. Return the empty pan to medium heat, add the remaining tablespoon oil, and swirl to coat the pan. Add the onion and cook until slightly browned around the edges, about 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, and tomato paste and cook until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the wine, pureed tomatoes, and oregano, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Cook until the sauce is slightly thickened and measures about 1 and a half cups, about 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the parsley.

4. As the sauce finishes cooking, remove the meat from the oven and transfer it to a cutting board, adding any accumulated juices to the sauce. Slice the steak on the bias, against the grain, into half-inch thick pieces. To serve, pour the sauce onto individual plates or a large warmed serving platter and top with the sliced steak. Serve [uh, devour] immediately.

Tell me, friends, what was your best Valentine’s Day meal? In, out, solo, coupled, or with a completely embittered group of single friends– I want to hear some food stories!

Honey balsamic chicken

You know how there are those days (like…most days) where you get home from work and you are seconds away from having a Hot Pocket or something else awful for dinner, but then you realize that there actually are recipes that allow you to get dinner on the table in a crazy-short time and don’t require any Rachael Ray rasping? [Here is where I pause for you to agree and also to catch my breath.] Well, this is perfect for those days. The bonus is that it is delicious, to the point where one’s husband is disappointed there aren’t leftovers for him to eat the next day.

I stole this from somewhere on the internet, but can’t for the life of me remember where. Whoever you are, Magical Internet Creator, thank you. I ate Real Food last night because of you!

Ingredients

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil (or a spritz of non-stick cooking spray)
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper, to taste

Preparation

Heat olive oil in pan over medium-high heat.

Sprinkle thyme, salt, and pepper over both sides of chicken and add it to pan.

Cook chicken 7-8 minutes per side or until done.

Add the balsamic vinegar and honey to the pan and simmer until it thickens (about 1 minute).

Serve with side(s) of your choice. Last night was green beans and roasted-in-foil potatoes, but I just saw a spaetzle suggestion that sounds divine.