Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cooking Acapella

If I could some up the last few weeks of my life into one word it would be... hectic.

I've spent more time these past weeks eating on the go and in a rush than usual, only dreaming of cooking in my little bright green galley kitchen.  While I was on the go with my first grad class, beginning my school year with twenty new 5th and 6th graders and filling in last minute as a hair model for my sister's Hair Wars, my husband was assuming the role of Head Chef in the kitchen.  

Having finished the grad class this weekend and looking forward to some down time, Ladd welcomed me home with a bit of a celebratory meal.  No recipe, no Food Network inspiration, no cook books laying open on the counter- he was cooking acapella. However, what he pulled together was a perfect nod to the early fall season and as comforting as a warm blanket.  It erased all the bad meals I've had as of late: grocery store asian chicken salad with wilted lettuce and rubber chicken, snacks of stale gummy bears, soggy sandwiches and lots of coffee and Red Bull.  When I came home yesterday, thrilled to be done with a three hour exam, my favorite guy had it all under control: stuffed chicken breast with my all time favorite macaroni and cheese and roasted butternut squash sprinkled with brown sugar.  I'm one lucky girl.

Ladd's macaroni and cheese is a cinch to make but the key is to cook it long enough that the edges and bottom of it turn golden brown and a bit crunchy- reminiscent of Cheez-Its.  His stuffed chicken breast was fresh and uncomplicated, wrapped around a wonderful mixture of fennel, apple and onion.  It was a perfect welcome home meal and certainly worth putting on your table... soon.

Fall Stuffed Chicken Breast
serves: 2
2 breasts, pounded out to an even thinness
1/2 Braeburn apple, chopped
1/4 cup mix of red and yellow onion, chopped
1/3 cup fennel chopped
lemon juice
2 pats of butter

Mix the fruit and vegetables together in a small bowl and dress with lemon juice.  Spoon the mixture into the center of each chicken breast and pull the edges up together, securing with a toothpick or two.  It doesn't need to be perfectly rolled.  Place in a small casserole dish and add the remaining fruit and veg mixture to the dish around the chicken.  Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.  Add a bit of water and a couple pats of butter to the dish.  Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes or until chicken is thoroughly cooked. 

Ladd's Mac and Cheese
serves: 2
1/2 box pasta (corkscrews, shells, elbows)
1/4 cup blue cheese
1/2 cup swiss cheese
1/3 cup sharp cheddar cheese
salt and pepper

Cook pasta according to package.  Drain.  In a casserole dish, add pasta and all the cheese and stir together.  Add a bit of salt and lots of freshly ground pepper.  Bake at 400 degrees for 30-45 minutes or until the edges are a crunchy golden brown.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Urban Garden Harvest

With the arrival of the autumnal equinox and the school year now underway, it's hard not to notice a change in the colors of the leaves and summer vegetation.  I knew this all too well as I gazed out at my patio herb garden this morning and saw that the once-vibrant, lush basil, parsley and thyme plants have begun to give way to natures cycle.  It happens every year, yet a part of me is still surprised when I see my herb garden yield to the cooler temperatures; somehow I just want those little guys to live on forever.

Alas, if you're like me and you don't have room for a greenhouse in your city apartment, or you have a cat  that's like a weed-whacker, just aching to chow down anything green that grows from dirt, then you'll need to begin making preparations to use the last of your outdoor greens.   So, if you haven't already, make for your herbs and try to gather all those remaining healthy leaves!  There's still time to get a few meals from your delicious summer bounty.  I put together this pasta creation not only to utilize the fresh herbs, but also because it's a perfect way to celebrate Meatless Monday and it reheats wonderfully the following day for lunch at work.

Historically my husband can be a bit skeptical when I create my own vegetarian dishes.  Regular meat eaters can be like that, but I look at it as a challenge to create meatless meals that can be both satiating and tasty.   Each time I whip up a new meal idea, there's usually a moment or two of silence while I sneak glances his way as he slowly chews through his first bite.  If you've seen the movie Gladiator, it's like I am the crowd at the Coliseum and Ladd is Commodus, as I anxiously await the thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision of the meal's fate in our future rotation.  Fortunately in this case his eyebrows lifted and a subtle, yet unquestionable hint of a smile curved his lips upward.  Score!

The addition of anchovy paste and nutty parmesan give it a saltiness that balances nicely with the sweet roasted vegetables.  I also recommend using walnuts instead of pine nuts, which give a great flavor but are much easier on the wallet.  It's basic enough for a weeknight, especially if you purchase a premade pesto but could nicely pass for a weekend meal if served with some red wine, a nice side salad and some fresh crusty bread.

So, as we close out the final flavors of summer, please send me your ideas for your last-minute seasonal herbs and veggies!  Also, keep in mind that even if you don't get to use every last bit of your garden, you can still freeze many items for weeks, and enjoy them in November when you need a little reminder why we love summertime so much.

Roasted Tomato and Pesto Pasta
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 1 small-medium red onion, cut into about 8 wedges
  • olive oil
Roast tomatoes and onion lightly coated in olive oil and sprinkled with pepper on a cookie sheet in a 400 degree oven for about 45 minutes or until tomatoes begin to look "deflated."  Give them a stir about half way through.  Once they have finished cooking, pulse half the onions in a food processor a couple of times-- not too much!
  • 1 tablespoon anchovy paste
  • Spaghetti
  • fresh parmesan
Recipe for walnut pesto:
  • 1 huge handful of fresh basil leaves (maybe about a cup or cup and a half)
  • 1/4 cup of toasted walnuts
  • 1 or 2 small garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • good sprinkling of fresh parmesan
  • 1/4 cup of olive oil, give or take
  • dash of salt and pepper
Add all ingredients except olive oil to a food processor.  Then, as you pulse, add the olive oil slowly.  You may need to scrape down the sides a couple times to get it all incorporated. Set aside in a small bowl and add a little more olive oil to the top. 

Bring it all together:
Cook the pasta and drain.  In a wide, deep skillet, add a little more olive oil and anchovy paste.  Cook for just a minute on medium heat to allow the paste to sort of melt into the oil.  Toss in the pasta and give it a stir.  Add the onions and tomatoes.  Cook a couple minutes longer.  Turn the heat down to low and add in the pesto until everything is nicely incorporated.  Serve and top with parmesan and a couple fresh basil leaves.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Farewell to Summer

There's a window of time at the end of the summer, just before kids go back to school that smells different.  In fact it smells like school.  Maybe it's all the back to school supplies in the stores, the reminders on the side of the road to drive safely, but my nose says differently.  I used to relish this time of year.  Yes, I was one of the few kids that LOVED going back to school.  Perhaps that's what steered me in the direction of teaching;  I still get to enjoy that shift in the season... that unique feeling that September brings.  This Labor Day, Ladd and I enjoyed the respite of a long weekend by sampling wines at some of Virginia's local wineries, accompanied by Amish cheeses and freshly baked breads.  To top it off, we made homemade strawberry shortcake for dessert. Come Tuesday, it'll be back to Math, Science and cafeteria lunches at school with a new group of kiddos.

A little confession about my past strawberry shortcake desserts: any time I've ever made strawberry shortcake, it's been in the form of a spongy yellow bottom that I buy in a 6-pack from my local grocery store, studded with strawberries, and topped with Reddi-Whip.  It takes all of about 6 minutes to throw together and there's very little thought involved. Quite frankly, I never had a problem with that.  I love strawberry shortcake.  I thought that was the way it was meant to be served; the way it was meant to taste. That is until I read, The Locavore Way: Discover and Enjoy the Pleasures of Locally Grown Food by Amy Cotler, a renowned chef, writer and local foods advocate.  In her book Cotler showcases the best ways to cook and eat foods at the "height of their ripeness."   The recipe yields about 10-12 shortcakes, but if you aren't planning to eat them all in one night (tempting, but not recommended), you can freeze the extras, unbaked and simply pull them out when you're ready to bake them.  It also pairs beautifully with a Strawberry dessert wine we picked up at Bluemont Vineyards.  It's the perfect dessert to bid farewell to the summer and plunge into the most fabulous of seasons!

As fall approaches, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book, but if you're chompin' at the bit to make this classic dessert right now, you can find the recipe on Cotler's website: Once you try it, I bet you'll leave the status quo strawberry shortcake in your rear view mirror like I did!