Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Tuscan Beef with Spinach

Wednesday nights are the crazy night in our house. The pods have activities in separate directions so we divide and conquer and then eat a late dinner once every one is in bed. Though we end up eating pretty late it is a time that I can make something that The Other Half really enjoys and it is a great way for me to wind down at the end of a really long day. Tonight I am going to make a favorite of ours, Tuscan Beef with Spinach. I originally found the recipe in a Good Housekeeping and for the most part have left it pretty untouched. I love the recipe because it is a one pan wonder and The Other Half loves it because it has pretty much all his favorite ingredients in it - unless I could find a way to add tuna - but that is another story for another post.

A couple of notes:
This is a dish that is definitely best made in a big old cast iron pan if you have one. You will need to give the steak room to cook and it is much easier to do the spinach in one or two batches max with a larger pan. I am lucky to have inherited my mom's cast iron - lovingly seasoned over many years - but you can find some very nice cast iron in the Lodge line without breaking the bank. Cast iron is always a great thing to look for at antique stores and yard sales - as long as it doesn't have rust on it you can clean it up, reseason it and be ready to go.

Secondly, this dish calls for top loin. I have tried nicer cuts of beef without much success and to be honest why spend extra money if you don't have to break the bank to have a nice meal.

We love the spinach cooked this way that I will make a double batch for us to enjoy. I just use a little beef broth instead of the chicken broth and it gets some of the nice flavor that comes from cooking the meat prior in the pan. 

Finally I always hear that you should put meat in a pan/on the grill and leave it alone - but in actuality I learned that about half way through the cooking process, especially with this type of process, you should flip your meat. The explanation I learned on the NPR show, The Splendid Table, is when meat is placed over high heat the juices will try and move away from the heat source. So by flipping it once during the cooking process you will redistribute the liquid and make sure that your less expensive cut of meat isn't the consistency of a shoe. Now don't get all crazy and keep constantly flipping it - once will do the trick nicely.

Hope you enjoy this as much as we do!

Tuscan Beef with Spinach - Serves 4

(2) 10 oz boneless beef top loin steaks, 3/4" thick, well trimmed
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
(1) 15 oz. can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained (I have also used Navy beans)
1/2 tsp dried crushed rosemary (if you have the whole dried rosemary crush it up a bit with the back of a spoon in a separate dish before adding to the pan)
1/4-1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (depending on how much heat you like)
1/2 cup low sodium chicken broth
1 lb. fresh baby spinach, washed


Heat 12" skillet over medium high heat. I like to do my other prep work while the pan is heating - that way I know it will be thoroughly heated through. It's super important that you let your pan thoroughly heat. If you don't you won't get a nice crust on the outside of the meat, the juices will not be sealed inside and it will smoke like a bugger.

Pat steaks dry with paper towels. This is a super important step toward getting a nice crust on the outside of the steak. Sprinkle steaks with 1/4 tsp salt. Add steaks to pan and cook 4 minutes per side for medium rare. Add 30 seconds per side for increasing wellness. Transfer steaks to a platter, cover with foil and let rest for 10 minutes. This time is key - it allows the juices to redistribute throughout the meat. If you cut it too soon the juice will just run out on your cutting board - what a waste...

Reduce pan heat to low and allow to cool for 2 minutes. Take pan off heat and add olive oil and garlic, stirring constantly for 30 seconds. Place pan back on heat and stir in beans, rosemary, crushed red pepper, remaining 1/4 tsp salt and cook 1 minute.

Add chicken broth and increase heat to medium. Heat to boiling, then gradually add spinach, stirring until spinach just wilts - about 2 minutes.

To plate, slice the steak against the grain in 1/2" slices and arrange over top spinach bean mixture. Top with pan/beef juices.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hearty Meat Sauce, Bolognese Style

If I was stranded on an island with just one cook book which one would I take? Let me preface by saying that Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, is my gal but if I had to limit myself to one I don't think I could pick from her collection and leave the rest behind. Better to sacrifice them all and take Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything". Though the title is perhaps a bit tongue and cheek, at 944 pages it does cover just about every base and gives you a couple of really good easy-to-make recipes in every major food category. This is my go-to gift for young newlyweds or an amazing housewarming present for a burgeoning home cook.

Tonight I have invited a new friend and her little girl over for dinner so I wanted something that I could prepare in advance and was tasty but not too fussy. I tend to like "country" cooking -  regardless of the nationality - that is food that is simple but full of flavor. Bittman's recipe for Meat Sauce Bolognese fits the bill perfectly, and over polenta is rich and delicious without being overly heavy.

Though it takes about three hours to properly cook, the majority of that time is unattended. I usually serve this with a green salad and a nice crisp white wine, or on a colder day a zinfandel with a little richness to it. It makes about 4 cup of sauce - I tend to enjoy half now and freeze the rest for later when I am in a rush and need a quick, nutritious meal.

One note: Take the time to mince the onion, carrot and celery versus just chopping it up. It really does make a difference in the texture of the sauce and allows those components to really break down durning the simmering process.

Hope you enjoy!

Meat Sauce, Bolognese Style

2 Tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, minced
1 carrot,peeled and minced
1 celery stalk,minced
1/4 cup chopped bacon or pancetta (about 2 oz sliced meat)
8 oz. low fat ground beef (this will save you from having to skim a lot of fat off during the cooking process)
8 oz ground pork (or use all ground beef)
3/4 cup dry white wine or juice from the tomatoes (cook with something you would be willing to drink at the table - it makes a difference)
One 28 or 35 oz. can of whole plum tomatoes, drained, reserve liquid if you are using instead of wine (I like to use San Manzano tomatoes)
1 cup organic chicken stock combined with low-sodium beef bouillon
Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste (optional but I like a little heat)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup cream, half and half or milk
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Handful fresh basil leaves or italian flat leaf parsley if you want a more subtle end note

Heat olive oil on medium heat in a large pot or Dutch oven until hot. Add onions, carrots, celery and bacon and sautee until veggies are soft and meat is cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Add ground meat, breaking up the meat into small crumbles, cooking until all traces of red are gone - about 5 minutes.  Add the wine or tomato liquid and cook until most of the liquid is evaporated, stirring occasionally, for about another 5 minutes.

Crush the tomatoes with a fork or with your hands until very well pulverized. Add them to the meat and pour in the stock. Bring to a nice rolling simmer and turn down to low. Allow to cook for about 1 hour, stirring occassionally and break up any big pieces of meat or tomatoes as you go.

After an hour, add salt, pepper and crushed red pepper to your taste. Stir well and allow to simmer for another hour, or until most of the liquid is evaporated.The sauce should be fairly thick when it is ready.

Add in the cream or milk, parmensan cheese and stir well. Continue to cook for another 15 to 30 minutes until the sauce is nice and thick and bubbly, stirring occasionally during that period. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking.  Prepare quick cook polenta per package directions and seve immediately with a fresh basil or parsley chiffonade on top.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Uptown Chicken with Oh my Gorganzola Cheese Grits

I love, love, love when I find a recipe by chance and it turns out to be crazy good, and relatively healthy to boot. That is the case with this uptown chicken recipe - least we thought so. Probably the only unhealthy thing about it is that I defy you to eat just one "serving". Here is how I came across it...

For Christmas I received a huge, and I mean huge, basket of cookbooks from my mother-in-law, that she had won at a garden club luncheon raffle. She had bid on it with me in mind and like so many things of this ilk, as I went through the books, some were interesting and some not so much. After weeding it down to the ones I thought I would really use I started my process of evaluation that I think I mentioned in another post. If you are joining us late, I read through a cookbook and then make a list in the front of the book of any recipe that I might want to try. This particular one jumped out at me because of the ingredients list. To be honest I was not sure that it was going to be all that good - so I was more than happy when it turned out to be amazing.

I hope you all enjoy this as much as we did. The Other Half says it is a definite keeper. I found this recipe in "The Complete Cooking Light Cookbook", with a couple of tweaks. Enjoy!

Uptown Chicken

1 1/2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
(4) 4-oz boneless skinless chicken breast halves
2 tsp butter (can substitute olive oil spread or cooking spray if you want to reduce the fat)
1/2 cup chopped pancetta (substitute low sodium ham if you want to cut down on the salt/fat)
1/2 cup strongly brewed coffee (good use for the last little bit left in the pot)
1/4 cup water
1 tbsp brown sugar
(1) 8-oz. Package pre-sliced portabello mushrooms
1 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 tbsp water

Combine the first 4 ingredients in a large heavy-duty zip-lock plastic bag; add in chicken. Seal bag and shake to coat chicken.

Heat a large nonstick skillet on med-high heat. Add butter and melt.

Add chicken to skillet; cook 2 minutes on each side or until golden.

Combine pancetta, coffee, water and brown sugar in a small bowl. Once combined, pour over chicken and bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover and reduce heat – allow to simmer for 3 minutes.

Add in mushrooms; recover and simmer 5 more or until chicken is done and mushrooms are tender.

Remove chicken and mushrooms with a slotted spoon and put on a serving platter and set aside. Cover to keep warm.

In a bowl, combine 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon water; whisk until smooth. (Super important or your gravy will be lumpy!) Add mixture to cooking liquid in pan and bring to a boil, stirring constantly for 1 minute or until thickened. 

Gorgonzola Cheese Grits

(2) 14.5-ounce cans fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth 
3/4 cup uncooked quick-cooking grits 
1 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese  (about 4 oz)
1/3 cup fat-free sour cream 
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg 
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Bring the broth to a boil in a medium saucepan; gradually add grits, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to low; simmer, covered, for 5 minutes or until thick, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat; stir in remaining ingredients.

Plate grits first then chicken/mushrooms on top/slightly to the side. Spoon gravy over top. I served with a green salad and roasted asparagus.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Pork Chops with Apples in a Port Wine Sauce

A lot of times when I cook the recipe drives what I make but occasionally the ingredients will make me go search for a recipe. On a recent shopping trip I found some gorgeous pork chops that were crying out to be purchased so I was happy to oblige. When I got home I did some research and found the recipe that follows. It spoke to me for a couple of reasons: (1) it was relatively quick which is key when trying to cook and make sure the two pea pods don't kill each other; (2) the ingrdients sounded rich and flavorful.

A couple of key things I found in putting this together. If possible buy and use the chops on the same day. Try and get the chops as close to room temperature as you can while safely handling the pork. I ended up having to freeze the chops and had some issues with temperature control of the meat near the bone. Though the recipe calls for 3/4" think chops I used much larger ones and just adjusted the pan time by a bit to accomodate the thickness. My chops were about an 1 1/2 thick so I upped the cook time by a minute on the first side and then played it by ear once I had flipped the chop over. This is one of those instances a meat thermometer is super handy. I used a large skillet - one where the onion had enough room to brown nicely and then chops were not crowded. I did use the bullion which is listed in the recipe as optional - used a low sodium brand so that I was adding a ton of salt.

We loved these and will definitely add them to the collection. I served them with brown rice and edemame.

1-2 pork chops per person, at least 3/4 inch thick
1 large apple, peeled, cored and thinly sliced (I used a granny smith but would be good with a red delicious)
• salt and pepper
• 1 large onion, sliced thinly
• 3 garlic cloves, minced
• 1/3 cup port wine (I used Osbourne’s) 
• 1 packet chicken bullion (optional)
• 1/2 cup water
• 1 teaspoon dried thyme
• olive oil and a little butter

Sprinkle fresh pepper and about half of the thyme on one side of pork chop 

Preheat pan over medium heat.

Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil into hot skillet and add onions. Cook onions for 4-6 minutes, stirring frequently until they soften and brown slightly. Turn heat down if onions start to burn. Once onions are cooked take them out of the skillet put in bowl and set aside.

Put skillet back on heat, add a dash more olive oil, a 1/2 tablespoon of butter and
place your pork chops, spiced side down into hot skillet. Cook 3 minutes then season other side with salt to taste, pepper and additional thyme and place that side down for another 3 minutes or more, depending on thickness (see notes above). Chops are done when they have just lost their pinkish color in the middle. Remove chops to heated plates and allow to rest. They will continue to cook a bit once out of the skillet so watch them carefully.

Add apple and a 1/4 tablespoon butter to skillet and let brown, stirring frequently, cooking for 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and let cook ONE minute only, just for flavor - you do not wish to brown or burn the garlic.

Add port wine carefully to skillet, scrape bottom to remove brown bits. Add onions back to skillet and cook for two more minutes.

Add bullion paste, and water. Stir and let sauce reduce by a half. Add one remaining butter to remaining sauce. Mix well, taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

Pour mixture over your pork chops.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Low Fat Fish Tacos with Black Beans & Brown Rice

I am still trying to get into a rhythum of posting so have some patience with me while I figure out how to work this into the schedule. I have so many recipes I want to share but as my mom always used to say - how do you eat an elephant - one bit at a time. So saying, on to the next bite...

After living in Southern CA in the 90s I am a big fan of the fish taco. I have never been able to recreate that same delicious flavor that they have out there, but I found this recipe and have since noodled with it a bit to make it a family favorite. Even the kids will eat these and it is a nice change of pace on taco nights from chicken or beef tacos.

Fish Taco

2 Tbsp lime juice (I use Nellie & Joe's Key West Lime Juice)
1 Tsp ground cumin ( I like to use McCormick's roasted cumin)
1 Tsp Olive Oil
2 Tbsp Cilantro
1 Pound firm white fish (Eg. cod, halibut - doesn't have to be an expensive cut of fish since you are going to marinate it and cut it up)
Corn tortillas
Salsa -  choose your heat
Arugula, shredded
Shredded cheese of choice - kids like montery jack, I like manchego for its buttery flavor
Black Beans (recipe below)

1. In a ziplock bag combine lime juice, cumin, olive oil and cilantro, then add fish. Allow to marinate in refrigerator for 15-30 minutes.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

3. Coat a baking dish with non-stick cooking spray ( I actually use olive oil in an atomizer as my spray).

4. Place marinated fish in dish and discard  remaining marinade. Bake 15-20 minutes until fish flakes easily.

5. Warm tortillas.

6. Cut fish in to small chunks and strips.

Classic Black Beans
This recipe came off the back of a can of Goya Black Beans and are so good that I can eat them just by themselves in a tortilla for lunch on the go.

1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1/2 cup chopped green onions, green parts only (about 4 onions)
3 cloves garlic, minced
15.5 oz can of black beans, drained and rinsed
8 oz can of corn kernel, drained and rinsed
3/4 cup water
1 tsp ground oregano
1 packet Sazon Goya without Annatto (easily found in grocery store in mexican food aisle)
1 Tbsp Cider vinegar

Heat oil in a pan over edium heat. Add onions and garlic and saute until tender but not browned (5-8 minutes). Stir in remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

I like to serve it with shredded arugula which adds a nice peppery flavor, salsa, shredded cheese, brown rice and black beans (recipe above). You can also include chopped veggies like cucumber and peppers to make a yummy burrito.