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Creamy Chicken Casserole with Leeks and Mushrooms

I remember researching my baby girl’s first car seat.  I had no clue what I was looking for.  I was focused on patterns that didn’t include teddy bears, perhaps longing for something that might actually match the car instead.  I didn’t know a five point harness from a three point one, and I certainly didn’t know how long I was supposed to keep it rearward facing as opposed to forward facing.  I started to read reviews.  I searched Consumer Reports.  I read mommy blogs to get opinions.  I sorted my Amazon results with the settings “Price:  High to Low,” hoping that if I spent more money, I would stumble onto the seat I was supposed to buy.  Much to my husband’s dismay, I realized the good moms were buying the safe and super expensive Britax seats, so I dropped a whole pile of money down to become part of the club.  And I did this several times over for her and her brother.

I kept her rear facing for longer than anyone thought I should.  I kept her in a five point harness until well past kindergarten, when she complained that her friends thought she was still riding in a baby car seat.  “But it’s actually a booster with a better harness,” I told her.  She didn’t agree.  She rode in a regular booster (LATCH capable, of course) until she was 8.  I finally took the back off when I could see that she clearly wasn’t remotely comfortable any more.  I kept telling myself, “She’s almost as big as her great grandmother.  It’s OK.”

Yet, tomorrow, I will put her on a bus at 6:30 AM for her big third grade field trip.  A bus with a driver I do not know.  A bus with no seat belts that will be barreling down the highway at 65 MPH.  She will wander around museums and theaters with friends and teachers.  She will eat a bagged lunch and buy her own McDonald’s for dinner.  She will carry a wallet and her own money.

But she will also carry her hip pack of allergy medicine.  I will have made sure there are at least three EpiPens with her with directions for symptoms that require flow charts.  I will have briefed the teachers and sent the chaperones long emails that make them think I’m crazy. (I am.)  I will have had thousands of thoughts about how to keep her safe … “Wait. If all the kids need lunches that don’t need to be refrigerated, they will almost all have Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches.  Must email teacher about separating her with safe lunches if possible.”  Major red flags will pop up as I walk down grocery store aisles.  “It’s a bus.  What if the person who rode in her seat before her had peanut butter crackers?  What if someone offers her a treat while on a tour?  She knows to say no.  Wait, does she know to say no?”  I will have gone over safety points with her ad nauseum, until her father says, “Kristin, I think she gets it.”

But I just can’t help it.  She’s my baby, even if 9 years have made her more grown-up than infant.  And I can’t be there to keep her safe.  I can’t be around the corner from her school if she needs me.  I can’t watch out for her as she maneuvers in a city, albeit a small one.  I am two hours away if she has an allergy emergency.   I won’t be the one driving.  And there will be no harnesses, side impact protection, or tethers for protection.

As much as I want to “forget” to set the alarm tomorrow morning and keep her home safe with me, I know I can’t.

I will wake up at 5:30 AM and I will put her on that bus.  And I will not rest easy until it pulls back in at 7 PM tomorrow night.

Creamy Chicken Casserole with Leeks and Mushrooms

So the theme here is comfort food, if you didn’t guess that already.  Feel free to use leftover or Rotisserie chicken for a quick weeknight dinner (if you do that, you can get less than a pound).  Also, this is very flexible and could include other herbs, vegetables, or seasonings.  It’s a great dinner with just a simple green salad on the side. Also, you can make this up in advance, just put the crumbs on right before you bake it.

Serves 4

1 pound boneless chicken breast or thighs, cooked and shredded (I poached mine)
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced
1-2 leeks, well cleaned and chopped
2-3 ribs of celery, chopped
1 large clove of garlic, chopped
1 T butter
1 T olive oil, plus a little additional
1/4 cup of white whole wheat flour (or other flour)
1/2- 3/4 cup of whole wheat cracker crumbs (or breadcrumbs)
1 1/2 cups of 2% milk
1 T brandy
1 T lemon juice
1/2 T chopped fresh rosemary
Salt and Pepper
Cayenne Pepper

1. In a medium saute pan, saute the sliced mushrooms in a bit of olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper and cook until they are browned and have rendered all their liquid, about 5-7 minutes.  Set aside.

2.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  In a medium saucepan, melt 1 T butter and 1 T oil together over medium heat.  Saute the leeks, celery, and garlic for about 5 minutes and then sprinkle in the 1/4 cup of flour.  Stir well to combine and cook for 1-2 minutes to cook the flour a bit.  Whisk in milk, making sure to get any bits of flour incorporated from the edges of the pan.  Cook the sauce for 2-3 more minutes until quite thick, whisking constantly.  Add 1 teaspoon of salt, freshly ground pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper (or to taste), 1 T brandy, 1 T lemon juice, and chopped rosemary.

3.  Add chopped/shredded chicken and sauteed mushrooms to the white sauce and stir to combine.  Place in a shallow baking dish with about 1.5 quart or 1.5 liter capacity.  Cover with cracker or bread crumbs and bake for about 40 minutes until golden and bubbly.

 

 

Gingered Pork Stir Fry

I know I speak about my grandmothers a lot here, and quite honestly I forget what I’ve said and what I haven’t said (and am entirely too lazy to go back and look).  But this recipe is another one courtesy of my mom’s mother, Grace.  And it serves as Cuizoo Arsenal meal #6.

Grace is an interesting woman.  Her father was an Irish Linen importer who valued education tremendously. Her mother was very musical and played the organ at Christmas time in the big department stores in New York City.  Grace went to college at a time when women rarely did; she was a nutrition major and did research on the benefits of breast milk in the 1930s; she traveled to China and Hong Kong with my uncle when he was traveling as an ethnomusicology professor; she painted (art, not walls); she played the piano; and she was a great writer and poet (all of which she still did up until just a few years ago when arthritis finally crippled her hands).  And of course, like many of us, she did this while raising three wonderful kids and keeping a home.  So, it’s not often (in the US, at least) when your best stir fry or spring roll recipe comes from your 97 year old grandmother.  But I’m lucky like that.

And this stir fry technique is my absolute favorite.  You cook marinated meat, remove it, and then steam the vegetables in a Sherry/Ginger/Garlic mixture, and add it all back together to make a deliciously fragrant sauce.  Unfortunately, take-out Chinese will be forever ruined for you once you taste it.  And it is the perfect arsenal meal because it uses a small amount of meat (or none at all, if you like) and a lot of vegetables, it is flexible — virtually any veggies or meat that you have will work, it is cheap, and you can easily have it cooked in 30 minutes.

Typical stir fry vegetables all work — think broccoli, peppers, onions, snow peas, green beans, bok choy, carrots, etc.  But don’t be afraid to add in others — edamame, mushrooms, corn, cabbage, and radishes all work too.  The protein can be pork, chicken, tofu, shrimp, steak, or simply a nice handful of nuts or pumpkin seeds on top.   The key is the marinating liquid and the steaming liquid.  They make the dish.  Feel free to serve over brown rice if you have time or white rice if you are rushed.  (Or no rice at all, which is what I just had for lunch.)

Gingered Pork Stir Fry

Serves 4-6

3/4 pound of pork tenderloin (or other cuts, or other proteins)
2 T, plus 1 T cornstarch
1/2 cup, plus 1/3 cup Sherry
1/3 cup soy sauce, plus extra for flavoring
2 inch piece of fresh ginger
4 large cloves of garlic
1 red pepper
1 large carrot
1 medium onion
1 small head of baby bok choy
1 1/2 cups of green or yellow beans (*I used frozen and thawed yellow beans from our summer CSA and they were great)
3 green onions
1/2 cup of water or broth
Salt and pepper
Steamed Rice

1.  Slice pork tenderloin into thin strips.  In a medium bowl, make the marinade by combining 2 T cornstarch, 1/3 cup Sherry, and 1/3 cup soy sauce.  Add pork to marinade, mix well, and set aside. (If you are serving this with rice, start it now.)

2.  Chop ginger and garlic finely and place in a small bowl.  Add 1/2 cup of sherry to that and set aside.

3.  Prepare vegetables by coring and slicing the red pepper, peeling and slicing the carrot, peeling and slicing the onion, chopping the bok choy into ribbons, stemming and chopping the green or yellow beans into bite sized pieces, and finely chopping the green onion.

4.  Mix 1/2 cup of water or broth with 1 T cornstarch and set aside.

5.  Heat wok or large saute pan over medium high heat and add about two or three tablespoons of mild flavored oil (light olive oil or vegetable oil).  Add meat, draining most of the marinade off as you add it to the pan, and cook for 3-5 minutes until almost done.   (It may stick a bit, but that’s OK.  Just try to let it get a good sear and stir fry, scraping up the bits as you go.)  Remove meat from pan and set aside.

6.  Add a bit more oil to the pan and add denser vegetables — in this case, carrots, onions, and green or yellow beans.  Stir fry for 3-5 minutes.  Add peppers and the entire bowl of Sherry/Ginger/Garlic.  Scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan and cover and let steam for about 3 or 4 more minutes.

7. Remove lid and add the cooked pork or meat, the bok choy, green onions, and the water/broth and cornstarch mixture.  (Make sure you give the cornstarch mixture another stir before adding it b/c the cornstarch will have settled to the bottom).  Stir well to combine and cook for about 2 minutes, until sauce is bubbly and thickened.  Add soy sauce (and hot sauce if you like it spicy) and salt and pepper to taste and serve over steamed rice.

Black Beans and Rice

Here we are with meal number 4 from the Cuizoo Arsenal, where I attempt to give you 7 meals that are quick, cheap, easy, and nutritious.  This is one of those basic meals that has sustained entire civilizations for hundreds or thousands of years.  Just don’t ask my daughter to eat it.  She continues on with her absolute hatred of beans.  And yet, it is one of our staple meals.  You may (or may not) ask how we pull that off.  My best explanation is that I just keep cooking it.  We generally have some variation of beans once every week and she cries every time she finds out.

It’s not that I don’t care.  It’s just that I know there will be a day when she decides that beans are OK.  It has happened with mayonnaise, melted cheese, cow’s milk, rice, mustard, whipped cream, and others.  And maybe they won’t be her favorite, but she will learn to tolerate them.  So I just keep cooking them and try to ignore the fact that her bean-loving brother is now attempting to emulate his sister by saying “ewww…” every time I cook something from the legume family.  Don’t tell Social Services, but I’m pretty sure they are not going hungry and if they refuse to eat one meal, I’m confident they’ll make up for it purely through Cheddar Bunnies the following day.

So, Beans and Rice.  You basically want to think about this like a *very* thick bean soup.  And this means you can use any type of beans or lentils cooked in water or stock with aromatics and serve them over brown rice to make a complete and healthy meal.   I find the texture to be much better if you use dried and soaked/cooked beans, but trust me I’ve done it with canned beans many, many times.  My only request on canned beans is that you select a brand that doesn’t use BPA-lined cans.  We use Eden Organic.

Meat is optional here.  Obviously beans are great with a bit of pork in them.  This usually means some sausage, a ham hock, or bacon.  But this is entirely optional.  In the absence of pork, I find that a lot of Smoked Paprika adds great depth of flavor and the smokiness that the meat usually imparts.  So, add some meat if you have it or want to use it up.

Otherwise, just add lots of onions, garlic, peppers, and spices. The key flavorings in my opinion are:  Cumin, Smoked Paprika, Chipotle Powder, Garlic, Salt, and Fresh Cilantro.  This is another meal where you can provide some flexibility based on toppings.  I like to serve chopped avocado, toasted and chopped pumpkin seeds, finely diced onion, chopped cilantro, chopped tomatoes, sour cream, shredded cheese, and/or hot sauce.

But if you go in a non Tex-Mex direction, beans are equally good with some Garlic, Sage, and Thyme.  I particularly like white beans with those flavorings served with some crusty bread or pasta instead of rice. (White Beans, Sausage, Tomatoes, Olive Oil, and Italian spices are another favorite).  Or if you go the lentil route, you can play up Indian spices with Curry and Garam Masala served over Basmati Rice with a dollop of yogurt and some chopped pumpkin seeds or pistachios.  Beans will essentially take on any flavor you decide to throw at them, so be creative and take advantage of this cheap and easy protein.

Black Beans and Rice

Serves 6 with leftovers

16 ounces dried black beans (or about 3 or 4 cans)
1 large onion
2 red peppers
4 cloves garlic
2 t salt
1 t cumin
1 1/2 t smoked paprika
1/8 t chipotle powder
2 T tequila
Olive Oil
Zest and juice of one lime
Additional salt and pepper
1 1/2 cups uncooked brown rice

Optional Toppings:
Chopped onion
Toasted and chopped pumpkin seeds
Sour Cream
Cilantro
Avocado
Hot Sauce
Shredded Cheese

1.  If using dried beans, rinse and put them in a pot.  Cover with plenty of cold water and bring to the boil.  Boil for 2 minutes and remove from heat.  Cover and let soak for about 2 hours.  (If using canned beans, ignore this step. Also, you can just soak dried beans overnight if you like and skip the boiling step.)

2.  In a large stock pot, heat a bit of olive oil over medium heat.  As oil is heating, chop onion, peppers, and garlic.  Add to hot oil and saute for 2-3 minutes.  Season with 2 t salt, freshly ground pepper, cumin, smoked paprika, and chipotle powder.  Cook spices and aromatics for an additional minute.  Deglaze with tequila, scraping up any browned bits.

3.  Drain the beans from their soaking liquid (or canned liquid).  Add to pot with aromatics and spices and fill with water, just to cover the beans.  (Alternatively, if you are using canned beans, just add them to aromatics and cook for 15-30 minutes total with only about 2 cups of water or stock.) Cover and bring to the boil.  Reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about an hour.

4.  Meanwhile, according to package directions for rice, bring water to the boil and cook rice.  (Most brown rices take at least 45-50 minutes to cook.  If you are using white rice, it will only take about 20 minutes.)

5.  Remove the lid from the beans and let simmer for 15-30 additional minutes (after the first hour of cooking), until much of the liquid has evaporated and beans are tender.  (15 minutes should be fine with the canned beans.)  Meanwhile, prepare optional toppings and zest.  Using a zester or peeler, remove the zest from one lime and chop it finely.  When beans are nicely tender, add the chopped zest and the juice of one lime, additional salt and pepper to taste, and additional cumin, smoked paprika, or chipotle to taste.

6.  Fluff rice and serve the meal by putting some rice on a plate and topping with black beans.  Put toppings on the table and allow guests (or ungrateful children) to choose what they want.

Whole Grain White Pizza with Carmelized Onions and Garlicky Spinach

For meal number 3 in the Cuizoo Arsenal, we are going to do a pizza. I feel sort of silly talking about pizza, because, come on, it’s pizza.  Crust, toppings, cheese.  Pretty straightforward stuff.  But yet, we still order it and pay $15 for something that (with a little forethought) can be made in about 30-40 minutes (of active cooking time) for half the cost of delivery.  And the end result will have completely controlled ingredients (organic produce, no preservatives, whole grain, etc.) and surely taste better.  The last time I checked, I don’t think Papa Johns offered caramelized onions as a topping.  And I don’t mean to look down my nose at Papa Johns, because there is a time and a place for delivery pizza and we all know that their garlic butter is pretty much made up of crack cocaine.  But, there is no massive conspiracy preventing you from trying to make it on your own. And kids absolutely love making their own pizzas for dinner.

So, let’s start with the crust.  This is the main reason I own a bread maker.  It is fantastic for this purpose because you can use it on the “Dough” setting, dump your ingredients in, turn it on, and in 90 minutes you have pizza crust ready to bake.  I like that I can use organic, whole grain flours and I can throw everything in after the kids get home from school and it just gets mixed and kneaded without having to think about it.  But you have other options here … many pizza shops will sell you a ball of dough and most grocery stores carry pre-made pizza dough as well.  And if you aren’t pressed for time or don’t have a breadmaker, you can certainly make pizza dough by hand too.  I should add that the key to whole grain pizza (in my opinion) is to roll the dough *very* thin, so it is not too dense and “whole wheaty.”

Next, we need to talk sauce.  Or in this case, the lack of sauce.  This is a white pizza and the more I eat it, the more I don’t like sauce on my pizza.  I usually let the kids make their own mini pizzas and they always want sauce, but this time they tried the white and were converts.  It is really delicious on its own or with the greens and onions.

And finally, toppings.  I really don’t need to provide instruction on pizza toppings, do I?  You know the things you like, so just use that stuff.  But I will put in a vote for the sauteed greens.  Spinach, chard, kale, beet greens, etc. all work very well on a white pizza and while kids may not love it at first, most will come around.  It’s a great way to get a super nutritious vegetable into a meal they really like.   Pizza is also a great way to use up leftovers for toppings … BBQ Chicken Pizza with Smoked Gouda which only requires a bit of shredded leftover chicken, Grilled Veggie Pizza with the vegetables left over from the previous night, Sauteed Mushroom Pizza with some Fontina Cheese, or just a plain old Cheese Pizza that uses up all the odds and end pieces of cheese sitting in your refrigerator.

Give it a try and you’ll start to realize that it’s a great middle of the week recipe.  It requires more “unactive” cooking time than some things, but it is still very easy and always a favorite with the kids.

Whole Grain White Pizza with Carmelized Onions and Garlicky Spinach

Serves 4

Crust:
1/2 t salt
3 cups white whole wheat flour
1 1/2 t yeast
1 cup warm water
2 T olive oil

1 large onion
1 T Sweet Marsala Wine
8 ounces fresh spinach
1/3 cup olive oil (plus extra for cooking)
2 large cloves of garlic
Salt and Pepper
Red Pepper Flakes (optional)
16 ounces mozzarella cheese (pre-grated if you like)

1.  Mix crust ingredients in the pan of a breadmaker and set it to the “Dough” setting which typically takes 90 minutes.  (Alternatively, you can mix the dough by hand and do at least two cycles of kneading and rising.)

2.  While the pizza dough is doing its thing (or about 30-40 minutes before you are ready to eat), thinly slice the onion.  Wash the spinach to remove any sediment and set in colander to drain.  Finely chop the two garlic cloves.

3.  In a medium saute pan over medium high heat, heat a bit of olive oil and cook the onion until it begins to brown (about 4-5 minutes).  Add 1 T Marsala Wine, 2 T of water, and salt and pepper to taste.  Scrape up any browned bits and reduce heat to low.  Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, and adding a bit more water if the onions begin to stick.  (This is a quick method for caramelized onions, if you like you can do a more traditional 30 minute method.)  Set the caramelized onions aside.

4.  Meanwhile, grate the mozzarella cheese if it is not pre-grated. (I should add that freshly grated always tastes better to me.)  Make the garlic oil by mixing 1/3 cup of olive oil with half of the chopped garlic, 1/8 t of salt, freshly ground pepper, and a few red pepper flakes.  Warm in the microwave for about 1 minute at 50% power and set aside.

5.  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.  In the same saute pan, heat a bit more olive oil with the remaining half of the chopped garlic. Roughly chop the spinach (it is OK if it still has water clinging to it) and saute for about 2 minutes until wilted.  Season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

6.  When the dough is done in the breadmaker, split the ball roughly in half.  Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  Roll out half of the dough directly on a parchment-lined sheet until it is very thin (about a 1/4 of an inch thick — at this thickness, this recipe usually makes two oblong pizzas that are roughly 10 inches by 13 inches).  Drizzle with a bit of the olive oil mixture, bake for about 8 minutes, and remove from oven.

7.  Top pre-baked crust with caramelized onions and spinach.  Season well with salt and pepper.  Sprinkle about half of the mozzarella cheese all over.  Generously drizzle all over with about half of the olive oil mixture.  Bake for an additional 13-15 minutes on the bottom rack of the oven until golden and crisp.  You can broil for a bit at the very end if you like.  (Because this makes two pizzas, you can either do two at at time on separate sheets, or you can make one and repeat the process for the second dough ball, using the remaining half of the cheese and oil mixture.)

Sesame Crusted Fish Tacos with Avocado Salad and Slaw

So, here we have meal #2 from the Cuizoo Arsenal.  I’m pretty sure I won’t be getting one done per day, but I’ll try to keep these coming as frequently as possible.  I know I’ll be cooking tonight, but once the weekend hits, I don’t make any promises as cooking cuts into my drinking time.  I kid.  (I should mention though that one small bottle of white wine has lasted me *all* week, which is some sort of healthy living record for me.  And no, I haven’t switched to bourbon in an attempt to take it easy on wine.)

Today we are going to talk about tacos.  They are generally a huge kid favorite and when it comes to flexibility, anything in a wrap is about as good as it gets.  Let’s first discuss the shell.  I, for one, don’t really like grocery store taco shells because they just break and make a mess.  When I came across this lightly fried/soft shell method for tacos a while back, I began to enjoy them again.  Basically, you soften a corn tortilla in a bit of oil in a saute pan, fill it with toppings and cheese, fold it over, and let it crisp a bit before flipping it and then crisping the other side.  What you end up with is a crispy (but not crunchy) taco shell with warm fillings and melted cheese.  It’s sort of a cross between a quesadilla and a taco.  This all being said, if you like regular taco shells or if you want to do soft tacos with flour tortillas, it’s totally up to you. One thing to add here is that you should always have some corn or flour tortillas in your freezer (and regular taco shells or tostado shells — which I do love — in your pantry).  It is a no-brainer of a meal.

Second, you need some protein.  Obviously, the choices are pretty obvious here.  A can or two of white or black beans heated up with some garlic and spices and mashed is fantastic in a taco (and about as fast as you can get for a dinner).  Grilled chicken or ground beef are the old stand-bys.  Sauteed veggies with cheese is great too.  You can also do a combination of several proteins and let everyone pick their favorites.  But it seems that the whole world is gaga over fish tacos right now (and I can’t say I blame them), so that’s what we did last night.  On the subject of the fish, I will add that the sesame crusted method I used makes a great and easy stand alone entree with a simple salad or vegetables. You can also add some bread crumbs to the sesame seeds if you like.

Third, you need some condiments.  The easy ones are salsa and sour cream.  Not much more difficult is making some basic guacamole.  When I do that, I simply mash one or two ripe avocados with a chopped garlic clove, salt and pepper, some cumin, and lime juice.  With last night’s meal, I had some tomatoes and cucumbers left over from the previous night, so I just chopped those up with the avocado for more of an avocado salad.  As the veggie or an additional condiment, I like to serve some form of cole slaw or salad greens with tacos because they are just as good inside the taco as on the outside. Find a good hot sauce for the grown-ups at the table and you are basically done.

Now, for variations that we love:  Spicy Mashed Black Beans with a Creamy Red Cabbage Slaw and Queso Fresco or Feta cheese — that is one of my favorites; Grilled BBQ Chicken (or leftover chicken) with Creamy Slaw and Cheddar Cheese; Steak with Caramelized Onions and a bit of Blue Cheese and Balsamic Greens; Fajita style with Grilled Chicken and Sauteed Red Peppers and Onions; or for a VERY quick dinner, just cheese and whatever else you may have leftover or in the freezer (guaranteed to be faster than any fast food).

As for the $15 limit, I might be slightly over because the fish itself was about $10.  But clearly you can make this meal just as easily with chicken or beans and cut that cost dramatically.  So, I’ll let it slide.

Sesame Crusted Fish Tacos with Avocado Salad and Slaw

Makes 8-10 tacos (enough for 4-6 people)

1 pound of mild white fish (I used cod)
1/2 cup toasted sesame seeds (you can buy them pretoasted in Asian markets)
1 T butter
Salt, Pepper, Smoked Paprika or Chipotle Powder
10 – 6 inch corn tortillas
4-6 ounces shredded cheddar cheese
Sour Cream
Salsa
Hot Sauce

Avocado Salad
1 ripe avocado
1/2 cucumber
10-12 grape or cherry tomatoes
Onion
Fresh cilantro from one bunch
1 garlic clove
1/2 of a lime
1/4 t cumin
Fresh cilantro
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper

Slaw
A small Napa or Chinese Cabbage (or any type of cabbage will work)
Fresh cilantro from one bunch
Olive Oil
1/2 of a lime
A bit of orange juice

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  Melt 1 T butter and mix with sesame seeds.  Add to that 1/4 t salt, pepper, and smoked paprika to season (Chipotle Powder if you like it spicier).  Place fish on a parchment line baking sheet.  With a sharp knife, cut it into 3/4 inch slices, but leave whole filet in one piece (See pic above). Pat sesame seed mixture all over top.  Bake for 12-13 minutes until just opaque.

2.  While the fish is baking, mix avocado salad.  Halve, peel, and remove pit from avocado.  Chop it into a medium-sized dice and place in bowl.  Halve the cucumber lengthwise, remove seeds with a spoon, and chop into a medium-sized dice.  Quarter the cherry or grape tomatoes. Finely chop a small piece of onion to make about 2 T.  Chop about 1 T of cilantro.  Finely chop the clove of garlic.  Mix all of the above in the bowl.   Add the juice of 1/2 of a lime and a drizzle of olive oil.  Season with 1/4 t of salt, pepper, 1/4 t of cumin, and a bit of Smoked Paprika or Chipotle Powder.   Set aside.

3.  Prepare the slaw.  Cut the cabbage in half and remove the core.  Thinly slice 1/2 of the cabbage and place in a bowl (reserve other half for a different use).  Chop about 1/4 cup of cilantro and add to cabbage.  Drizzle with about 1/4 cup of olive oil, the juice of 1/2 lime, and a bit of orange juice to taste.  Season with 1/2 t of salt and pepper.  Play with the dressing if needed, adding more citrus, salt, or olive oil if necessary. Set aside.

4.  To prepare the tacos:  heat a bit of olive oil in a large saute pan.  Take one corn tortilla and place it flat into the pan, spinning it a bit to coat it with olive oil.  After about 10-20 seconds, it should be flexible (if it’s not, your shells may crack).  Add one or two slices of the baked fish and about 1 T of shredded cheese.  Gently fold the taco in half and hold with a spatula for a few seconds to make sure it stays folded.  Repeat with another taco (I usually do two at a time).  When the tacos are lightly golden on one side, flip and cook on the other side.  Remove to an oven safe platter and place in oven to stay warm.  Repeat with remaining tacos.

5.  To serve, put a bit of the avocado salad inside the taco and serve with slaw, sour cream, salsa, and hot sauce.  The slaw is also good inside the taco as a condiment.

Crispy Calamari Chopped Salad

Mark Bittman has me thinking again.  He has a way of doing that.  After reading his latest NYT piece, “Chop, Fry, Boil:  Eating for One, or 6 Billion,” I once again realize that people who like to cook have a way of making things way too complicated for those who don’t (Bittman is not one of those people). We teach using recipes, when we should actually be teaching with models and systems.  Whenever I talk to someone about cooking a meal, it’s always the same complaint:  “I can usually follow the recipes, but I have no idea how to pull the meal together and time things correctly.”  And that’s the problem  — getting a handle on the bigger picture is truly the hardest part of cooking when you are learning.  But recipes don’t help with this unless they are written in a “non-mise en place” manner.  (For the non-French speaking, mise en place means simply to have everything in its place and ready to go — chopped, toasted, sauteed, etc. — before cooking.)

So, my plan for the next few weeks is to teach 7 basic meals using a systems focus.  We will talk about soups, curries, pizzas, salads, rice and beans, tacos, and stir fries.  The goal is to give you a meal for each day of the week that you can confidently play with using the ingredients you have on hand.  The meals will be cheap (less than $15 to serve 4 people), easy (done in 30-60 minutes), healthy (whole grain and light on meat), family friendly, and flexible for many types of ingredients.  Because once you know the method for a stir fry or a hearty soup, you can rework it endlessly and never get bored with it.  And the “recipes” may not look like my normal ones (and may seem longer because of it).  I will try to focus on listing the ingredients, but not indicating how to prepare them in the ingredients list (e.g. I won’t write “2 onions, finely chopped”).  Instead, I will work the preparation into the directions so you can save time by chopping onions while water is coming to the boil, etc.  Mise en place is necessary for a restaurant kitchen, but it’s not always realistic for the home cook who is trying to get dinner on the table while doing third grade homework with children hanging off his/her legs.

I think by giving you models and showing you how I would actually cook a meal like this with logical instructions, rather than recipe notation, you can increase the repertoire of meals you cook on a regular basis and start to cook based on intuition rather than following a recipe word for word.  And when you get to that place, I can almost guarantee that you will begin to enjoy cooking more because it becomes an expression of creativity and more of a challenge.  So, our first recipe in the “Cuizoo Arsenal” is a Crispy Calamari Chopped Salad.

A main course salad like this needs only a few components:  salad greens or cabbage, some protein (fish, chicken, beans, or tofu all work), extra chopped veggies, some nuts or seeds, fruit or cheese if you like, and a dressing.  Use the veggies that you have, or the ones that your family loves the most.  We like chopped salads with a creamy dressing, but feel free to use a vinaigrette too.  Making your own dressing takes all of 1 or 2 minutes and is so much more flavorful and healthy than a bottled variety (Here’s my recipe for Balsamic Vinaigrette which you can leave as is or tweak with herbs, mustard, etc.).  In this salad, I lightly fried our calamari, but it would be equally good sauteed or grilled if you don’t feel like frying.  And this easily feeds 4-6 people for less than $15.

Variations I could easily envision would include a Leftover BBQ Chicken Salad with greens, thawed corn, avocado, tomatoes, Jack cheese,and a creamy cilantro dressing; a Turkey, Dried Cranberry, and Pecan Salad with greens, carrots, celery, chopped apples, white cheddar cheese, and an Apple Cider Vinaigrette; a Vegetarian Greek Salad with greens, chick peas, roasted red peppers, green onions, feta cheese and a basic Greek Vinaigrette; or a Pizza Salad with greens, peppers, tomatoes, torn basil, some crisped prosciutto, rustic croutons, mozzarella, and a Basil Vinaigrette.  The key is to take flavor combinations that you enjoy and convert them into a salad.

I’m looking forward to this challenge and I hope it gets you in the kitchen more in 2011!

Crispy Calamari Chopped Salad

Serves 4-6

3/4 pound of calamari (squid) bodies (Not tentacles —Here’s a before and after pic)
1/2 cup of pumpkin seeds
Large bunch of salad greens (or enough to fill a large salad bowl or spinner)
1 cucumber
1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes
2-3 radishes
1 lemon
3/4 cup of corn starch or arrowroot starch (or flour if you like)
Smoked Paprika (or Chipotle Powder if you want it spicier)
Salt and Pepper

Thousand Island Dressing:
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup low fat plain yogurt
1 T low fat milk
1 T pickle relish
1 T finely chopped onion
1 T chopped parsley
1/4 t salt
Dash of cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
Lemon Juice

1.  Preheat the oven (or toaster oven) to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.  Clean squid bodies by making sure there are no remnants of cartilage, etc. inside the pouch.  Slice in thin rings and toss with juice of 1/2 of a lemon, salt and pepper, and a bit of smoked paprika.  Let marinate while you prep the veggies and toast the pumpkin seeds.

2.  Put pumpkin seeds on a baking sheet and toast for 10-12 minutes in preheated oven.

2.  While pumpkin seeds toast, place salad greens in a salad spinner or bowl to wash.  Meanwhile, wash cucumber and slice in half lengthwise.  Using a spoon, scrape out the cucumber middle to remove the seeds.  Cut the halves into quarters lengthwise and cross cut to make bite sized pieces.  Wash the tomatoes and set aside. Wash and trim radishes, quarter them, and chop into bite sized pieces.  Remove the salad greens from their rinsing water, and spin or towel dry. Tear dry salad greens into bite sized pieces if necessary and place in a large salad bowl with chopped cucumbers and tomatoes.

3.  Finely chop onion and parsley for dressing.  Make the dressing by combining mayo, yogurt, milk, relish, onion, parsley, salt, cayenne pepper, and black pepper.  Thin with a little leftover lemon juice if needed.  Place in refrigerator until you are ready to serve.

4.  Preheat a large saute pan with a thin layer of olive oil in it over medium high heat. On one plate (oven safe), place a double thickness of paper towels and set aside. On another plate, mix cornstarch (or arrowroot) with some salt, pepper, and a bit of smoked paprika or chipotle powder.   Take about 1/3 of the calamari rings and dredge in the cornstarch or arrowroot mixture.  Shake off excess and lightly fry in the preheated saute pan.  They will take only about 1-2 minutes per side.  When they start to look just golden, flip them with tongs and cook about 30 seconds more. (Don’t overcook your seafood!)  Remove with a slotted spoon and place on paper-towel lined plate and stick it in your still warm oven (shouldn’t be on, just warm from toasting the seeds).  Repeat with the remaining calamari until it is all fried (if you need to, add a bit more oil to the pan).  When it is done, remove the warming plate from the oven and toss the calamari with a bit of salt and more Smoked Paprika or Chipotle Powder.

5.  Assemble the salad by tossing the vegetables with most of the prepared dressing (reserving about 1/4 cup).  Mix in pumpkin seeds and either place on a platter or leave in a large bowl.  Top with Fried Calamari and serve with additional dressing if needed.

Smoky Scalloped Potatoes with Sausage

I’m thinking there is a guide to parenthood somewhere that I forgot to read.  Before I had kids, I imagined parenting to be similar to, um, living — except with children.  And I know that sounds simplistic and parenting is much harder than just living, but I guess I imagined that I would continue to do things that I enjoy, rather than things that I do not.  This isn’t making much sense, is it?

You see, there is an entire underbelly to our culture that I truthfully had no idea existed until I had children.  Festivals.  Apparently, once you procreate, there is an unwritten rule that you must both enjoy and faithfully attend all festivals occurring within a 50 mile radius of your home.  These can include, but are not limited to, Fun Fests, Fall Fests, Arts Fests, Music Fests, Octoberfests (those I enjoy more), Jazz Fests, Spring Fests, Renaissance Fests (sometimes called Fairs), Apple Fests, Maple Syrup Fests, Strawberry Fests, Ice Cream Fests, Chili Fests, Winter Fests, First Night Fests, and Random Nature Event Fests.  Corollary events can include Carnivals, Public Easter Egg Hunts, Holiday Plays and Pageants, Santa Parades, and Bug Fairs.

And let me just make myself clear.  I do not particularly like festivals.  Maybe it’s the walking around aimlessly saying “Look kids, a donkey!”  Or maybe it’s the whiny kids who are generally just looking for the funnel cake stand.  And refuse to STFU until they get a funnel cake.  Or maybe it’s the same old Lion’s Club food truck.  Or maybe it’s for the simple reason that NONE OF THESE FESTIVALS SERVE BEER.

For example, this recipe for Smoky Scalloped Potatoes with Sausage could inspire an entire festival.  There would be crafts for the kids that included painting a potato.  There would be some sort of Scalloped Potato cook-off.  And a potato peeling competition.  That sounds fun, doesn’t it?  And don’t forget about the food vendors.  There will most assuredly be kettle corn, funnel cakes, and french fries.  And some sort of random animal to visit — llamas, donkeys, reindeer, or horses (of course) are logical choices.  I can’t wait to spend my entire Saturday afternoon at the Scalloped Potato Festival, now that you mention it.

Actually, I made these scalloped potatoes the other afternoon when we were skipping out on some random festival in our area.  It’s been fall (season of lots of festivals!), so I have already forgotten which one it was.  It is a wonderful, easy dinner for a cold night with its simple but delicious flavors.  The smoked sausage bastes the potatoes as they cook and you won’t believe how few ingredients you need.  I questioned the idea of scalloped potatoes without cheese, but this really works.  And made with 2% milk (which I did), it isn’t nearly the calorie and fat hog that some scalloped potato recipes are.

And I must mention that this is my dad’s recipe.  And I’m pretty sure he hates festivals too.  That afternoon, I cooked and sipped a glass of wine while the kids played school (after helping me peel the potatoes).  Donkey rides kick some ass, but this is more of what I imagined motherhood to be.

Smoky Scalloped Potatoes with Sausage

Serves 6 as a main dish

6-7 medium potatoes, peeled
1 lb. smoked sausage (very important to get high quality, local smoked sausage for the best flavor)
Flour (1/2 T per layer)
Butter (about 1 T per layer)
Salt and Pepper
2 cups of 2% milk (approximately)

1.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2.  Slice potatoes thinly. Slice smoked sausage into thin rounds (or chunks, however you like it).

3.  Butter a 9 inch by 13 inch glass pan.

4.  In the greased pan, make one layer of potatoes.  Sprinkle 1/2 T of flour over the potatoes and season well with salt and pepper.  Break 1 T of butter into little pieces and scatter it over the potatoes.  Top potato layer with slices of smoked sausage.

5.  Repeat by layering potato slices, flour, butter, salt and pepper, and smoked sausage.  Your top layer should be potatoes.  (I made three layers of potatoes, with two layers of sausage in between).  On your final layer of potatoes, sprinkle with 1/2 T of flour, additional salt and pepper, and 1 T of butter (in small pieces).

6.  Pour milk over top the potatoes until you can start to see it come up the edge — it should be about 2 or 2 1/2 cups.  Using a metal spatula, press the potato layers down into the milk, so the milk mixes in well.

7.  Bake uncovered for about 1 hour and 30 minutes (mine took more like 1 hr. and 40 minutes).  Every 20 minutes or so, press the layers down with the back of a metal spatula again so the top layer gets saturated.  The potatoes are done when the milk is absorbed and the top is very golden brown.  Let rest for about 10 minutes before serving. (Helpful hint:  you may want to put a baking sheet underneath your baking pan, as the milk tends to bubble and make a mess of your oven.)

Vegetable Soup with Basil Pistou

I read this article in the New York Times yesterday (Told to Eat Its Vegetables, America Orders Fries).  Here’s a little quote to blow your mind:

For example, only 23 percent of meals include a vegetable, Mr. Balzer said. (Again, fries don’t count, but lettuce on a hamburger does.)

Truthfully, I am not surprised by this.  With busy schedules, it does seem difficult to eat enough fruits and vegetables.  There are plenty of nights in my house when I ask my husband, “Do we really need a salad tonight?”  I am often hoping for a response that goes something like this:  “No.”  It’s just that washing the lettuce and spinning it dry and making dressing and then washing the salad spinner and washing the salad bowl sometimes seems like an insurmountable task.  It’s ridiculous, I know, but I am pretty sure ours isn’t the only household where this happens.  (And yes, I know I should wash all of my salad greens the minute I bring them home and store them in a bag with a paper towel and then magically use as needed while wearing a Mary Poppins costume.  But I don’t generally do that, OK?)

What did surprise me about this quote is how the study authors defined a “vegetable.”  A single piece of lettuce on a hamburger apparently qualifies as eating a vegetable.  One piece.  A piece that is probably a wilted up scrap of iceberg with more water than nutrients.  If only 23% of meals contain a vegetable serving with those pathetic standards, we are in trouble.

And I’m sorry, but I don’t think putting baby carrots in a vending machine with super cool graphics is the answer.  First of all, the junk food they are competing against is so loaded with fat, sugar, sodium, and chemical flavor enhancers that the carrots are just not going to win.  They’re just not.  Beyond, a super sweet vegetable like a carrot is not the flavor profile we need to develop in kids (and obviously adults too).  We need to get children eating the non-sweet, non-starchy vegetables — things like dark leafy greens, broccoli, cabbage, beans, and zucchini.  When we start our babies out with sweet and starchy things like sweet potatoes and peas, do we really expect them to develop a taste for broccoli as two year olds?

In my entirely unscientific opinion, I think we need to begin training our children’s palates as soon as they begin solid food.  That means pureeing some zucchini or broccoli and as the infants get older, maybe even adding in some spices or a bit of garlic.  If we constantly train them to expect sweetness (in their vegetables, in their snacks, in their yogurt, etc.), I am just not sure how they will ever develop an appreciation for the other wonderful flavors that exist.

Beyond, here are a few ideas for the older ones … My kids have learned to love sauteed garlicky greens (spinach, chard, kale, etc.) and they especially enjoy the fact that they can eat a tablespoon or two and that equals about 2 cups of fresh greens.  Another idea is roasting vegetables.  This works well with asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, or green beans.  Simply roast at about 425 degrees Fahrenheit after tossing with olive oil and salt and pepper.  The veggies get crispy on the edges and are delicious.  A soup like this is also a wonderful way to integrate a lot of vegetables with different flavors or textures.  You could puree it for the most finicky, but I do think that if we always hide vegetables or puree them away, it is harder for kids to learn to like anything in its normal form.

So, make some vegetable soup and be truly Un-American.  You are not limited by the vegetables that I have used here.  This is what I needed to use up and you can certainly add or substitute based on what is languishing in the back of your crisper.  And by the standard of one-piece-of-lettuce-equals-a-serving, you should be good on nutrients for about a month and a half.

Vegetable Soup with Basil Pistou

Serves 6-8 with leftovers

2 onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2-4 sweet peppers, chopped
8 cups of broth (I used homemade beef broth)*
24 oz. pureed tomatoes (I used the Bionature Brand in glass)**
1/2 cup of red wine
2 cups of green or yellow beans, stemmed and in bite sized pieces
1 1/2 cups of edamame (cooked and shelled soybeans) or peas, limas, etc.
1 cup of pasta or rice (your choice, I used penne)
2 T fresh rosemary, chopped
Salt and Freshly Ground Pepper
Red pepper flakes
1/2 cup of heavy cream
Olive Oil

Pistou:
Handful of fresh basil, chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 large clove of garlic, finely chopped
1/4 cup of olive oil
3/4 cup of parmesan cheese (freshly grated)
1/2 t salt
Freshly Ground Pepper

1.  In a large stock pot, heat 1 T olive oil.  Sauté garlic, onions, and peppers until just softened.  Deglaze pan with 1/2 cup of red wine and cook until reduced slightly.

2.  Add broth and pureed tomatoes.  Season with 2 t. of salt, freshly ground pepper, and a few red pepper flakes (more or less depending on spice preferences).  Simmer for about 15 minutes uncovered on medium heat.

3.  Meanwhile, make the pistou.  You can chop it finely, use a food processor/chopper, or a mortar and pestle.  Simply chop up the basil and garlic, add the olive oil, cheese, salt and pepper, and stir to combine.  Set aside.

3.  Add green/yellow beans and pasta to soup.  Simmer for an additional 10 minutes until pasta and beans are done.  Add edamame, chopped rosemary, and cream.   Cook for about 5 minutes longer.   Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. (You can certainly let this simmer and reduce longer if you like, but we like ours with vegetables that aren’t cooked to death.)

4.  Ladle soup into bowls and serve with a spoonful of the Basil Pistou on top.

*Use a simple homemade broth rather than buying it.  It’s much better for you and much cheaper. Just cover some chopped onion, garlic, a few herbs, celery if you have it, salt and pepper, etc. with water and simmer for as long as you have.  Strain out the solids and use the broth in just about anything.

**Research is showing that BPA is easily transferred to anything acidic in a can.  If you don’t have your own tomatoes to use, buy tomatoes only in glass containers if possible.