If any week is screaming for comfort food, it is this one.  In my life, I am facing a grading deadline (I teach high school science when I’m not cooking), parent conferences crammed into any and every spare hour, and a nail-biter of an election.  Yes, the presidential election has my nerves on end, but honestly the biggest concern on my mind is California’s Proposition 30.

As an educator and parent of children in public schools, I know first hand the drastic cuts that California schools have made over the last five years.  The passage of Proposition 30 does not make things much better, but it prevents further cuts to the already ravaged district budgets.  The other day, a few students approached me about the upcoming elections.  They had engaged in spirited mock democracy in their history classes, their faces aglow with hope and pride in our civic opportunities.  We discussed that our district, backed against the wall, may be forced to end the school year three weeks early (among other extreme measures) if Prop 30 does not pass.   No, these kids did not dance and dream at the thought of a longer vacation, they went gray with the realization they may not be able to finish the year.  They want to attend school.  They know they engage in valuable learning and skill-building at school and that 15 days out of each of their classes puts them at a huge disadvantage.  Every district in California is facing some similar extreme measure.   This is the heartbreak of the school funding crisis.  Yes, economies and tax codes are complex, but when funding is denied to schools, it is the students who lose every time.  School children cannot vote.  It is our responsibility to represent their interests!  So Tuesday, get out to vote.  And if you can read this, thank your parents’ generation who approved taxes to fund the public schools that gave you and your peers the opportunity to learn.

Saucy Sausage and Eggplant over Polenta is a simple, comforting dish with fresh, rich flavors from the Roasted Tomato Sauce with Fennel.  Having a batch of the sauce in the freezer makes this dinner come together in no time.  You could certainly make this dish with your own favorite marinara sauce.  To save time, cook the polenta slow on the stove top, while you put together the sausage and eggplant.  Then sit back, pour a glass of wine, and wait for the election results to roll in…

Please share this post with other voters and lovers of comfort food!

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Our garden grew wild this year.  Between the overload of responsibilities and excursions that spring demanded, not to mention an uncooperative back, it is actually surprising we even found time to thrust some plants in the ground.  But somehow, despite our lackluster efforts, the garden is producing heartily.  The other afternoon on a saunter through our beds I was shocked to find piles of peppers.  We planted a variety of sweet and hot that we found at our favorite plant sale. Each plant boasts a different flavor, color and shape.  The other night their abundance begged to be honored with a starring role in this dish. Read the rest of this entry »

Thai-Style Steak Salad

July 2, 2012

At least once a week we opt for a dinner salad.  Tired from a long day of work or summertime adventures as it may be, dinner can be on the table in minutes with just a bit of forethought.  Our secret… grill enough meat on the weekend to have hearty leftovers.  Perhaps it is a breast of chicken spared from our ravenous tots or a generous morsel of salmon craftily hidden from my husband’s lunch, or as the case was last weekend, a nice piece of hanger steak.  Steak salad takes on endless incarnations, but this is one of our favorites from Sunset magazine years ago.

Thai-Style Steak Salad bursts with flavor from a mixture of fresh herbs, crunchy vegetables, salty peanuts, and a tangy dressing.  Using leftover grilled meat makes it a cinch to pull together, but you could certainly grill up a steak for the occasion.  The dressing is super light and oil free helping this dinner balance out the indulgences of the weekend.  The chili garlic sauce is spicy so adjust the amount to your own taste.

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Carnitas could easily claim their spot as my favorite food, especially when smothered in smokey, tangy tomatillo salsa.  These “little meats” came late into my life, but over the last few years I have experimented with different methods of preparing them including on the stove top, in the oven, and most recently in the slow cooker. The slow cooker, as the name of this post suggests, is the easiest method by far.

Every busy household should have a slow cooker.  During the school year, I rely on our slow cooker to have a hot dinner ready for us after my long day of work and my kids’ long day at school (especially on Mondays!).  For the longest time though, I made the mistake of thinking that slow cookers are  best used in the cool season months.  I used it primarily for soups and stews, the kind of food we crave to warm us up in the winter.  Recently though, I discovered that it is just as useful in the summertime to prepare dinner in the morning and have it cook all day. It does not even heat up the house, like the stove or oven would.

With dinner in the slow cooker, my family and I can head out on an adventure and not worry about having to be back to cook dinner for our nearly insatiable children.  This worked out perfectly last weekend when we returned from a day on the river, hungry and wiped out from the sun and water, to find perfectly cooked carnitas waiting for us.  I chopped up some cabbage for a slaw, warmed some tortillas, and dinner was served.

World’s Easiest Carnitas contains only five ingredients: pork shoulder, onion, salt, pepper, and oregano.  You do not even need to add water.  Just dice the pork, toss it in the spices, and place it in the slow cooker.  The heat renders the fat from the pork and allows the meat to cook in its own lard.  The top of the meat chunks that are exposed caramelize and brown beautifully.  If you prefer to add other seasonings you certainly can.  This method really highlights the taste of the pork, which I happen to like.  These carnitas are more of the shredded pork variety than the super crispy nibble variety.  If you prefer yours super crispy, brown them off in the oven just before serving.  Serve carnitas with tortillas and grilled tomatillo salsa.

World’s Easiest Carnitas

adapted from Bon Appetit

serves 4

2 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 2 inch cubes

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon pepper

2 teaspoons oregano

1 yellow onion, peeled and quartered

the garnish

corn tortillas

minced onion

cilantro

Grilled Tomatillo Salsa

Toss the meat with the seasonings and place in the slow cooker.  Toss onion quarters on top.  Cover pot and cook on low for 6 hours.

Discard onion.  Remove meat with a slotted spoon and shred with your fingers.  Serve warm with warm tortillas, minced onion, cilantro, and Grilled Tomatillo Salsa.

Note:

If you prefer super crispy carnitas, remove meat from the pot with a slotted spoon and spread out on a baking sheet.  Roast in a 450 degree oven until crispy, about 10 minutes.

Grilled Tomatillo Salsa

inspired by Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday

makes 1 pint

1 pound tomatillos, husked and rinsed

4 garlic cloves

1 jalapeno

1/4- 1/2 cup water

1/4 teaspoon salt

Place whole tomatillos and jalapeno over a medium hot grill.  Grill, turning occasionally, until skin is blackened and beginning to split.  Remove from grill.  Place jalapeno in a plastic bag for 5 minutes or so to loosen the skin.  Peel and de-seed pepper.  Place tomatillos, garlic, jalapeno, salt, and 1/4 cup water in a blender.  Blend until smooth.  Add more water if it seems too thick.  Taste and adjust salt to taste.

Here is a printer- friendly version of the recipes:

World’s Easiest Carnitas with Grilled Tomatillo Salsa

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Lest you think my family and I survive on berries and chocolate alone, I thought it was time to share an actual meal with you hungry readers.  Sure I know “people” who might on occasion settle in over a pile of brownies and call it dinner, but really, it is time to talk about real food, with protein and vegetables included.  This is the kind of food we should eat most of the time to make the indulgences of jam-piled pancakes and syrup-coated ice cream well deserved.

In truth, most of our summer meals resemble this one.   We have some lean grilled meat, seasoned up to our whim.  One the side is a pile of some kind of beautiful warm season veggie.  There may be some focaccia bread or rice, but more and more I find that we do not miss the starch when we leave it out.  In its place, I make a double portion of vegetables.  Yes, even the kids do not seem to notice this omission (I just make sure they get their piles of pasta on another night during the week).

Armenian Lamb Kebabs are very simple to prepare, yet just different enough to pass for something special if need arises.  They are perfectly seasoned to compliment the lamb without overpowering it. The Greek Salad is a fabulous side to the lamb, but it could be paired with any number of other meats.

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What a fabulous week it has been.  It is officially summer for me now.  After my 17 years of schooling and then 8 years of teaching high school science, the rhythm of the academic calendar is deeply rooted in my bones.  So even though the weather is unseasonably soggy and  gloomy, deep down inside I still know that- School’s…out for summer!!!   To make the upcoming break all that much more sweet, on my last day of school I found out that my Sausage and Kale Dinner Tart won the contest for the Best Dirt Cheap Dinner on food52.  What an incredible honor!  I am a huge fan of food52.  It is one of my go-t0 sites for great recipes and culinary inspiration from the many fabulous cooks that contribute to the site.  What a great way to start the summer and kick off my serious cooking and canning season!

As a celebratory meal, I made Roasted Garlic Lemon Chicken.  I love how chicken is both a perfect special occasion meal, yet inexpensive and quick enough to be perfectly suited for a weeknight as well.  This particular recipe is a regular in our rotation.  It is easy to adapt by changing the herbs, I call for rosemary here, but you could also use thyme, oregano, basil, or forgo the herbs altogether and add a touch of curry paste to the garlic mixture instead.

Roasted Garlic Lemon Chicken can be made with any pieces of chicken you prefer.  The original recipe calls for chicken thighs.  Since I often buy chickens whole and part them myself, I have always made it with a whole parted chicken.  When arranging the pieces in the pan, I put the breasts in the center and dark meat pieces around the outside.  All the pieces cook up perfectly!  Preparing this meal is incredibly simple.  Spread garlic paste over the chicken pieces and under the skin, then roast the chicken until the skin is browned and crackly, but the meat is super tender and moist.  The herbs perfume the meat and the lemon roasts and caramelizes lending a rich, lemony flavor.  Degrease the juices and reduce to make a flavorful sauce to pour over the sliced meat.  Dress it up or dress it down, this chicken is great for any occasion.

Roasted Garlic Lemon Chicken

adapted from  Bill Devin at  Fine Cooking

via The 140 Best American Recipes by Fran McCullough and Molly Stevens

Serves 6

the garlic paste

2 garlic cloves

pinch of salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

Mince garlic with a knife.  Sprinkle salt over the garlic and the flat blade of your knife to grind the garlic into a fine paste.  Transfer paste to a bowl.  Drizzle oil over paste slowly while whisking vigorously until mixture is uniform and emulsified.  (If it does not emulsify, do not worry.  The chicken will still turn out great.)

the chicken

1 5-pound chicken, parted

2 large lemons, sliced into 1/4 inch slices

1 bunch rosemary (6 4-inch pieces)

2 tablespoons white wine

freshly cracked black pepper

Rub the chicken pieces with the garlic paste thoroughly on both the outside and inside of the skin.   Cover and let chill 2 hours to overnight. The longer you let it chill, the more flavorful it will be.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and set rack in the middle of the oven.

Using a 9 x 13-inch baking dish, lay lemon slices evenly over the bottom.  Arrange rosemary sprigs over the top of the lemon and chicken pieces, skin side up, on top of the rosemary.  The breasts should be in the center since they cook the fastest.  Arrange the dark meat pieces around the outside.

Bake the chicken for 45 minutes or until the skin is browned and crisp and the meat is cooked thoroughly.

Transfer the chicken pieces to a platter and cover loosely with foil.  Strain any accumulated juices into a small saucepan.  Skim fat from the top.  Heat remaining juices over medium to create a simmer.  Add white wine and black pepper to taste. Simmer until sauce is reduced by 1/3.  Serve meat as whole pieces or sliced with the flavorful sauce.

Here is a printer-friendly version of the recipe: Roasted Garlic Lemon Chicken

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Vietnamese Hue Noodle Soup

February 27, 2011

Somewhat recently, I discovered Vietnamese Pho and its cousin Hue.  There are a number of restaurants in town that dedicate almost their entire menu to these hot and spicy soups.  At first, they seemed so exotic and indulgent with the fresh bean sprouts and peppers topping the hot rich broth perfumed with fresh basil or cilantro. When I first made the soup myself though, I realized how incredibly simple and healthy they are.  A few simple fresh ingredients come together with some basic Asian cooking staples: rice noodles, fish sauce, and sambal oeleck.  The result is a hot and spicy nourishing soup.

To speed up cooking time, consider cooking the broth and meat in a pressure cooker.  In just ten minutes, the meat is cooked to an almost divine tenderness.  You save time and energy, and the dish is possibly more delicious than the traditional method of slow simmering.

This recipe for Vietnamese Hue Noodle Soup is incredibly versatile.  Feel free to substitute chicken or even tofu for the beef (and decrease the cooking time).  The garnish is also very adaptable.  We have an uncommon fondness for cabbage, so that is our go-to condiment, but that can be replaced with bean sprouts as well.  Trade the fresh hot peppers for dried chilies if you prefer.  If you do not have lime on hand, give the soup a splash of rice vinegar at the end to add the bright acidic finish.  This soup is very good, one of our favorites. Try it and let me know what you think!

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