hoisin-grilled chicken with soba noodles

If my kid had to choose one thing to use as a dipping sauce…because, well, meat can’t be eaten in our house unless dipped in something, she’d choose barbecue.  Her sauce of choice is Sweet Baby Ray’s Sweet & Tangy.  She’ll put it on everything, but particularly her least favorite meat of all time: chicken.

Isn’t chicken supposed to be every kid’s favorite meat?  I mean, it’s generally tender, virtually devoid of any offensive flavor (or, flavor of any sort unless dredged in Sweet Baby Ray’s)?  Well, not my kid, I guess, resulting in this recipe being a sort of double whammy – she detests chicken and the sauce is NOT Sweet Baby Ray’s.  The sauce is better, in my opinion, but I don’t have the culinary sensitivities of an eight year old.

I love hoisin sauce.  I love Asian-inspired dishes.  I won’t go so far as to say I love chicken because handling raw chicken is enough to make me contemplate full-time vegetarianism.  But once it’s cooked, I’m OK with it.  Fortunately or unfortunately, chicken is flavorless unless you do something good to it.  In this case, the sauce.  The hoisin adds sweetness and the chili-garlic the heat.  I love the savory warmth of dark sesame oil, too.  But the really interesting flavor comes from the Chinese 5-spice blend.

You can make your own at home; it’s a combination of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, and Szechuan peppercorns, but 5-spice blend is readily available in the spice aisle at your local grocery store.  The spice adds a deeper warmth to an already savory combination of flavors.  Overall, this Asian-inspired barbecue sauce was quite good.  Don’t worry, Sweet Baby Ray’s.  A certain eight year old will  make sure my pantry remains well stocked with your products.  Nice change of pace, though.  Enjoy!

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Hoisin-Grilled Chicken w/Soba Noodles (recipe adapted from Cooking Light, July 2013)

Ingredients:

  • 2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
  • 3 (6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • Cooking spray
  • 6 ounces uncooked soba noodles (or pasta of your choice)
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar snap peas, trimmed and halved diagonally
  • 2 Tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp dark sesame oil
  • 2 tsp lower-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tsp sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste), or 1 tsp chili-garlic sauce
  • 2 tsp toasted sesame seeds
  • 2 green onions, thinly sliced

Directions:

  1. Combine first 4 ingredients in a large bowl. Add chicken; toss to coat. Heat a grill pan over medium-high heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add chicken; cook 10 minutes or until done, turning after 5 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes. Thinly slice across the grain,
  2. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil. Add noodles; cook 2 minutes. Add peas; cook 1 minute or until noodles are tender. Drain. Combine rice vinegar and next 3 ingredients in a bowl. Add noodle mixture; toss to coat. Arrange about 1 cup noodle mixture in each of 4 shallow bowls. Top each serving with about 3 1/2 ounces chicken. Sprinkle with sesame seeds and onions.

hoison_grilledchicken©zouptonuts***Cook’s Note:  Per the picture, I was convinced I had Soba noodles in my pantry when I didn’t.  Substituting any pasta will serve you well, however.

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penne with herbs, tomatoes, and peas

I’m not one who feels compelled to serve a starch at every meal.  I’d rather double my serving of veggies or add a hearty side salad.   I might even throw some cooked rice or lentils into a salad to beef it up a bit.  But my eaters enjoy their side dishes and I’m easily bored by potatoes.  The poor Irish.  I don’t know what I would have done.  Really?  Potatoes?  Again?

Since I had a flank steak on the grill and my green beans were cleaned and stemmed, I only needed a few minutes to throw this together right before the meat came off to rest.  You can cook your pasta ahead since it’s combined later with the hot ingredients to re-warm it.  I especially enjoyed this as a side because it was anything but “potato boring.”  There are a lot of flavors swirling around in this pasta – from heady garlic and parsley to the sweetness of basil and cherry tomatoes.  I think it would be great adapted to a cold pasta salad, as well, to make it perfect for any end-of-summer picnics you might have on calendar.  Enjoy!

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Penne with Herbs, Tomatoes, and Peas (recipe courtesy Cooking Light, June 2013)

Ingredients:

  • 8 ounces uncooked penne pasta
  • 1 cup frozen green peas
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 3 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 ounce fresh Parmesan cheese, shaved (about 1/4 cup)

Directions:

1. Cook pasta according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Add peas during last 2 minutes of cooking. Drain.

2. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium-low heat. Add oil; swirl to coat. Add garlic; cook 4 minutes or until garlic begins to brown, stirring occasionally. Increase heat to medium-high. Add tomatoes to pan; cook 1 minute. Add pasta mixture, salt, and pepper to pan; cook 3 minutes or until thoroughly heated, stirring occasionally. Stir in basil and parsley. Sprinkle with cheese.

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***Cook’s Notes:  Don’t cook your garlic for 4 minutes.  It’ll be scorched beyond belief and your pasta will be ruined.  Keep a close eye on it and throw in the tomatoes when it becomes fragrant, not brown.  Also, it’s super easy to over cook a tomato, too.  The recipe says cook for one minute, but I’d say less.  You still have to return the pasta to the dish and re-warm, which will be plenty of time for the tomatoes to heat through.  The original recipe called for regular pasta.  I substituted whole wheat to boost fiber and protein.

italian basil pasta salad

This post really needs to start with a confession:  I did not make this dish.  I bought the ingredients, but I had absolutely nothing to do with the assembly.  Not that I don’t want to take credit for it.  It was superb.  But I was off-duty enjoying a lovely, chore-free Mother’s Day.  The husband and the world’s greatest kid put this together as part of a truly relaxing, enjoyable day for moi!  No cooking, no dishes, re-fills on wine, plentiful hugs.  It was all good!

Including this pasta salad, which should go on every picnic menu you put together from now until you can’t eat another pickled banana pepper.  It deviated wonderfully from the all-too-predictable pasta salad of  yesteryear: tomatoes, broccoli, green onions, yada yada yada, slathered in Kraft Italian Dressing.  Don’t make that one again.  Make this one.  Great flavors from sweet to savory, great textures from crisp and crunchy to smooth and creamy.  When I tried it, Kat asked what I thought and I blurted out, “It’s like a fiesta in your mouth!”  I’ll probably regret that later, but at the time it caused endless giggles and was a spot on description.

Let the fiesta begin.  Enjoy!

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Italian Basil Pasta Salad (recipe adapted from Taste of Home)

Ingredients:

  • 1 package (16 oz) bow tie pasta
  • 2 c grape tomatoes
  • 7 oz mozzarella cheese pearls, halved
  • 1 medium sweet yellow pepper, diced
  • 1 small red onion, diced
  • 1/2 c pickled banana pepper rings, diced
  • 1 can (2 1/4 oz) sliced ripe olives, drained (the husband used capers)
  • 4 thin slices hard salami, chopped
  • 1/2 c fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

Dressing:

  • 3/4 c olive oil
  • 3/4 c red wine vinegar
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/4 tsp dried basil

Directions:

  • Cook pasta according to package directions; drain and rinse in cold water. In a large bowl, combine the pasta, tomatoes, cheese, yellow pepper, onion, pepper rings, olives (or, capers, if you’re so inclined), salami and basil.
  • In a small bowl, whisk the dressing ingredients. Pour over salad and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving.

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Cook’s Notes:  Make this a day ahead if you can, to let the flavors really come together.

marcella hazen’s four ingredient tomato sauce

I’m not a superstitious person.  Breaking mirrors?  Walking under ladders?  Black cats crossing my path?  Pppplllbbbhhhh…..whatever!

I do, however, believe in signs.  Ok, this might sound freaky, but when my dad passed away suddenly 16 years ago, my contact lenses would consistently be in the wrong compartments.  You know, the left would be in the right and the right in the left.  I wouldn’t notice, obviously, until I put them in my eyes.  But it occurred more than regularly.  It was incredibly frequent, in fact.  Now, I know it’s possible I was simply rattled by the sudden death of my dad and grief can make us absent-minded, but, really – I’m sure it was a sign.  A little, humorous calling card from Dad that everything would be alright.

When my mom passed away suddenly right after Thanksgiving 2011, I had a house full of people at her home in Michigan for most of a week.  My mom’s alarm clock never went off during that week.  The first morning I was alone in the house, after all the guests and family were gone, the alarm clock went off!  It still gives me chills.  Call me crazy, but that was a sign!!!  Everything’s gonna be alright.

So….the long and short of it, when this recipe appeared in different searches, and different websites three times over the course of a week, well, that’s a sign:  Make This Sauce And Everything Will Be Alright!

Friday night I was short on time because Kat had been at a friend’s house after school, and the weather was crazy: rain, hail, high winds, flooded washes (desert living at its best).  Since my pantry is always stocked with canned tomatoes of some variety or another, butter, kosher salt, and onions, this was my go-to meal plan.

Yes, you heard me:  canned tomatoes, butter, kosher salt, and an onion.  Sounds like it wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans, but don’t let minimalist fool you.  This sauce is spectacular!  Maybe it’s the butter, but it was intensely creamy and delicious and savory, with great depth of flavor.  And it took me all of three minutes to put in the pan (only because I had to photograph it), and 45 minutes to simmer.  Life doesn’t get more alright than this.  Enjoy!

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Marcella Hazen’s Four Ingredient Tomato Sauce

Recipe Courtesy Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

28-ounce can peeled plum tomatoes, no salt or herbs added
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small white onion, peeled and cut in half
Kosher salt

To serve
Shaved Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground black pepper

Put a 3-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the tomatoes, butter, onion halves, and a pinch of salt. Bring to a simmer then lower the heat. Crush the tomatoes lightly with the back of a spoon as they cook, and stir occasionally. Simmer very gently for 45 minutes, or until droplets of fat appear on the surface of the tomatoes. Remove and discard the onion.

Serve over hot pasta with Parmesan and black pepper, if desired.

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Cook’s Notes:  I also smashed a great, big garlic clove and let it steep with the tomatoes and onions, as well.  And, as you’ll see from the pics, I didn’t use canned plum tomatoes, either.  I used what I had on hand and the sauce was wonderful.  Next time I’ll probably try it with the plum tomatoes and see if “wonderful” could somehow be transformed to “out-of-this-world.”  Not that it matters much.  Wonderful is pretty darn good in my book!

easy homemade marinara

I made this recipe for a friend at school who recently gave birth to her fourth child.  She seems relatively non-plussed by the whole situation.  Apparently I’m the one who’s totally freaked out.  I feel frazzled for her!  So, putting myself in her shoes, I thought, “If I had four kids, what’s the one thing I’d want someone to do for me?”  I mean, before they locked me up in the loony bin.

Cook!

There, that was easy.  So I scoured a bunch of recipes suitable for cooking in large quantities: enchiladas, lasagna, casseroles of all varieties, etc., etc., and I found this recipe from Giada DeLaurentiis at The Food Network.  Now, I’ve always been a meat sauce kind of gal.  It’s what my mom cooked.  It’s what I’ve always cooked myself.  To boot, nobody has ever complained when I make spaghetti sauce with meat.  Bam!  So that’s what I’ve always done.  But I always cook with health in mind and I’ve regularly pondered the marinara!

Not knowing whether any of my friend’s kids were averse to meat sauce, I thought marinara would be a safe bet.  The problem was, I made it and gave it away, keeping only what wouldn’t fit in the Tupperware container.

Last night I made a batch I intended to keep all to ourselves and I’m almost afraid to admit I might never make a meat sauce again.  This sauce is so good, so flavorful, so aromatic, so….easy.  The prep is more time consuming than the original recipe indicates (I think they say 10 minutes, but that’s if you’re Giada DeLaurentiis), but if you get all your fine chopping done ahead of time, it all goes together relatively quickly.  Simmer and serve.  Like all good sauces, stews, soups, etc., this one is delicious the day of, but mellows beautifully after a day or two in the fridge.  Enjoy!

Homemade Marinara

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 small onions, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 (32-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 dried bay leaves

Directions:

In a large dutch oven, heat the oil over a medium-high flame. Add the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add the celery, carrots, and 1/2 teaspoon of each salt and pepper. Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes and bay leaves, and simmer uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 1 hour. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Season the sauce with more salt and pepper, to taste.

***Cook’s Notes: I threw in a small handful of fresh basil leaves close to the end of simmering. Remove with bay leaves before serving. Also, because I was working against the clock on this batch, my “finely chopped” was a little less than fine. After simmering, I ran my emulsion blender through the sauce to smooth out the consistency.

spinach and ricotta stuffed shells

Doesn’t everybody have a recipe like this?  I think a variation of this recipe has been handed down from generation to generation of cooks for decades.  But that doesn’t mean stuffed shells have worn out their welcome at our dinner table.  It means it’s one of those consistently good, go-to recipes everybody should have on hand in the event dinner inspiration is lacking.  I like this one because it reminds me of my mom, who taught me how to make it, and because it’s just a good, filling, comforting meal.  I use spinach, but chopped broccoli works well, too.  In fact, I think any green veggie, chopped or shredded, would work.

Also, since I’m a big advocate of cooking with your kids, this is an easy one for budding chefs to have lots of hands-on time.  I’m a bit nostalgic at the moment, having just lost my mom so recently, but putting this together for dinner last night with my 6 year old was a little bit of a walk down memory lane, too.  I have really fond memories of helping my mom in the kitchen – to the extent what I was doing was actually helpful – and that’s a huge part of what I love about cooking now.  So, letting Kat slosh marinara to her heart’s content is part of my joy of cooking.  I should probably add it to the instructions:  Give your kid a spoon and let ’em have at it.  Enjoy!

Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells

Ingredients:

  • 2 dozen jumbo shells, cooked according to package directions
  • 1 15 oz container low-fat ricotta cheese
  • 1 8 oz package part skim mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • 1 10 oz package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
  • 1/2 c Parmesan cheese, shredded or grated
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp parsley, dried
  • 1 tsp oregano, dried
  • 1/8 tsp black pepper
  • 3 c marinara sauce
Instructions:
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Cook jumbo shells as directed.  Drain on paper towel.  Thaw spinach and drain well, squeezing out excess moisture by the handful.  Combine with cheese, beaten eggs, salt, parsley, oregano and pepper.
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Spread a thin layer of marinara sauce in 13 x 9 baking pan.  Fill shells with about 2 Tbsp of mixture.  Place filled shells (one deep) in dish and cover with remaining sauce.  Bake at 350° for 35 minutes.  Makes 6 – 8 servings of 3 – 4 shells.

Kitchen Notes:  This recipe freezes really well, too.  Thaw to room temp then bake as directed.

linguine with asparagus and pine nuts

What better way to celebrate spring (even if you live someplace where spring looks an awful lot like every other season….ahem), than dishing up springier recipes.  This one from Real Simple had spring written all over it when I saved it to my recipe box a while back, but we were in the midst of root vegetables and brussels sprouts.  The out-of-season asparagus offered for sale at local grocery stores looked flacid and pale, which didn’t exactly inspire me.  So, I waited until the spring veggies started to appear and I could find firm asparagus with a nice snap when I broke off the lower stems.

This is another recipe calling for stock pantry items.  It goes together really fast, is super flavorful (can you say, cheese??), and looks pretty when plated, too.  My only recommendation would be to throw the garlic in with the pine nuts a minute or so later.  Even at medium heat, I thought the amount of time the recipe called for garlic slices to be in the pan might result in overcooking.  And scalded garlic changes the taste of everything.  Also, I reduced the quantities slightly, to better accomodate dinner for three with no leftovers.  Adapt to your own situation and enjoy!

Linguine with Asparagus and Pine Nuts

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces linguine
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts
  • 4 cloves garlic, sliced
  • 2 pounds asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • kosher salt and black pepper
  • 1 cup shaved Parmesan (about 3 ounces)

Directions:

  1. Cook the pasta according to the package directions; drain the pasta and return it to the pot.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the asparagus and cook, tossing occasionally, until just tender, 2 to 3 minutes.
  3. Add the asparagus mixture to the pasta along with 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper and toss to combine. Sprinkle with the Parmesan before serving.