Monday, December 27, 2010

Afghani Hot Dish

I have sooooo many cookbooks, but I love getting new ones! Lucky for me, my parents gave me one for Christmas: Hot Dish Heaven: Classic Casseroles from Midwest Kitchens. They got it at a store in a museum (I think it was) in Madison, WI. It's a great cookbook--it contains all-one-casserole or "hot dish" recipes. It's by Ann L. Burckhardt, a retired Star Tribune taste section editor. Lots of the recipes are for traditional comfort-type food, like tuna noodle casserole, mac and cheese, and tater tot hot dish.

I had Nate pick out one recipe that sounded particularly good so I could make it for dinner tonight. He picked out the Afghani Chicken Bake. It was pretty easy to put together, and tasted great. The recipe comes from an Afghani restaurateur in the Twin Cities. Here's the recipe:

Afghani Chicken Bake
-2-3 lbs. boneless mixed chicken pieces (I used about 2.25 pounds of boneless breasts)
-1 tbs. corn oil (I used olive)
-3 medium potatoes, peeled and chunked (I did not peel them, and I would recommend "chunking" them rather small so they cook)
-3 medium carrots, peeled and chunked
-1 tomato, sliced
-1 green pepper, sliced

Tomato sauce:
-6-oz. can tomato paste
-1.75 cups water
-1 tbs. crushed garlic (I didn't quite know how to do this, so I kinda crushed 4 cloves of garlic then chopped it all up)
-1 teas. salt
-1 teas. ground coriander seeds
-1 teas. black pepper
-1/4 teas. cayenne pepper

Hot cooked rice, preferably basmati

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Wash chicken, removing skin and fat. If chicken breasts are large, cut in half (I kind of cut in quarters). Heat oil in a large frying pan over medium heat and brown chicken.

In a 2.5-quart greased baking dish, layer the chicken, tomato, green pepper, potatoes and carrots. Combine ingredients for tomato sauce and pour over chicken and veggies.

Cover and bake for 1 hour or until chicken and potatoes are tender when pierced with fork (I ended up baking for 1 hour 20 and the potatoes were good). Serve with rice to soak up tomato sauce.

This dish was tasty, although I had to add some extra salt to my plate. Really crushing the garlic would make a difference, though, so I'll be sure to do that next time.

Personal Pita Pizzas

After the huge, rich meals we had had all weekend, Nate and I decided to take it kind of easy on Sunday night's meal. We thought pizza sounded good and with all the pita we had left over from Christmas Eve, we thought we'd make personal pita pizzas.

The pizzas were really easy to put together, and they took less than 15 to bake. Here's what we did:

Personal Pita Pizzas
-3 whole pitas (one for each of us and then one leftover)
-pre-made spaghetti sauce
-pre-made pesto sauce
-about 1/3 cup yellow onion, chopped
-about 1/3 cup green and red bell peppers, chopped
-1 small can sliced black olives
-fresh, small mozzarella balls, sliced
-feta cheese, crumbled
-1 Italian sausage, cooked and crumbled in a skillet (this was for Nate--I wanted a veggie pizza)

Combine spaghetti and pesto sauces to make a super tasty pizza sauce. Spread on pitas.
Layer rest of ingredients, dividing among the three pitas. Bake on a cookie sheet at 350-degree oven for about 8 minutes. Transfer pitas directly to oven rake and bake for 4 more minutes.
My pizza:
Nate's pizza:
Looking back at it, I think we should have baked the pizzas at a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time. I think that would have helped crispy the bottom a bit. But, nonetheless, these were really tasty. I think the pesto-red sauce had something to do with that.

Christmas Feasts

I've done a lot of eating and drinking this weekend! All good food and drinks, but I think my stomach needs a break after all the delicious, rich food! My family sure knows how to do it up when it comes to food, though.

Let's start with Christmas Eve. Nate and I had my parents over for dinner, and it's been a tradition of late to make it a Greek meal. So I make spinach pie (one of my favorites, as you may remember) and my parents brought salad fixings. For an appetizer, we picked up some pita bread and tzatziki from our favorite Greek grocery store, Olympia Fine Foods. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: I could eat spinach pie every day!

The next day, on Christmas morning, we have two other traditions--we start the morning with some stollen. This year's stollen came from a bakery in New Glarus, WI, and had marzipan baked into it! The other tradition is that my dad makes huge omlettes with ham, cheese, green pepper and onion. Sadly, I don't have any pictures of breakfast--I forgot my camera at home.

But I have plenty of pictures of our feast later on. Another tradition is that we usually have Italian (lasagna and spaghetti and meatballs) for our Christmas dinner. We changed it up this year, though (per Grandma's request!) and my parents made prime rib. We decided on a supper club theme to round out the day, so the evening included rumaki for an appetizer; classic cocktails such as Old Fashioneds and Manhattens to start with, a mashed potato casserole with butter and cream cheese; a delicious and incredibly rich Brussels sprouts casserole with bacon, cream and cheese; a relish tray with black olives, pickles and a corn relish; and for dessert, some of the Christmas cookies I made earlier in the week and Brandy Alexander ice cream drinks.

Both were great, filling and rich meals. It was a great weekend of eating!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas Cookies

Each Christmas, I'm in charge of the family Christmas cookies. I don't make a ton of them, but enough to keep some to snack on and then take to my parents' house for our dessert Christmas Day.

For as long as I can remember, my family has made two familiar favorites: gingerbread (or, more specifically, German molasses) and spritz. So, of course, that's what I made this year.

The spritz recipe I use comes from the 1967 Electric Company Cookbook. It's an oldie but goodie.
Here's the recipe:

-1 cup butter
-1/2 cup sugar plus 1 tbs. sugar
-1 egg
-3/4 teas. salt
-1 teas. vanilla
-1/2 teas almond extract
-2.5 cups shifted AP flour

Cream butter; add sugar. Blend in egg, salt, extracts and flour; knead dough in hands until soft and pliable. Press dough through cookie press onto ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake at 400 degrees for about 8 minutes. Makes about 6 dozen, depending on size.

For the gingerbread, I used this recipe. Until this year, I've always used a family recipe for German molasses, but I just couldn't seem to find it this year. this recipe is pretty similar, so I thought it would be fine.
I don't know if I did something wrong, or if the recipe is that different, but I had a helluva time with these cookies. For one (and this was my fault, but still), I let the dough ripen for only 1 day, rather than 2. But the dough was softer and stickier than it usually is, so I had to add A LOT of flour as I was rolling out the dough.
Some of the cutout shapes look rather funky. But, everything tastes OK, although the cookies a little crispier than usual.

After everything was cutout and baked, I frosted and decorated the cookies (notice the New Glaurs Moon Man!).
I used my old-standby recipe I have in my heat for frosting: about 1 tbs. butter, melted, mixed with a few dashes of milk, a small drop of vanilla extract and enough sugared powder to make it the right consistency.

On Christmas Day, we'll be having the cookies with Brandy Alexanders. Can't wait!

I'm Here ... Just Not Cooking

I can't believe it's been more than a week since I last posted. I don't remember the last time I went without posting for this long.

I haven't posted anything because, unfortunately, I really haven't been cooking anything. Dinners last week and this week have consisted for pulling Tupperware from the freezer and hoping it's still edible. We decided to take this route for two reasons: cut down on the grocery store bill (hard to do when you stock up on chicken and beer, though!) and clean out our freezers (yes, both freezers are filled with leftovers).

I've mostly found leftover soup in the freezer, along with some chili and pasta. It hasn't been bad, but I am definitely itching to cook! After the holidays--really, after the first of the year, I know we'll be back at it with some great stuff. I'd like resort back to a New Year's resolution I made either last year or the year before: make at least one recipe each week from a different cookbook. We have so many great cookbooks were rarely use, that I'd really like to try this.
In addition to our freezer meals, we haven't been cooking because we've been out and about a bit, namely in Madison over the weekend, where we were for Nate's birthday. We had some great meals (and beer, of course!), including:

Ale Asylum brewery, where we split a beer sampler (10 beers!!) and each had lunch.
I had a really tasty black bean burger.
Nate had an equally tasty pulled pork sandwich (I know--I took a bite before he did!). We also each had a cup of lovely roasted red pepper tomato bisque.
Later, we met up with friends and headed to the Great Dane pub and brewery (do you see a theme here?). We, of course, had a beer sampler. Then I had the mac and cheese with a pretzel roll.

Nate had the drunken jerk, which was jerk pork steamed in banana leaves and came with sweet plantains and green beans. I had a bite of this, too, and it was very tasty.

For breakfast, we stopped at Marigold Kitchen, which was right near our hotel. Nate and I split two things (I like to call it "halfsies," which is one of my favorite ways to eat!)--the chile poached eggs and the salmon, dill and cream cheese omlettes. Everything was excellent, but, unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures.

So there you have it. That's what I/we've been up to these past few weeks and hence, no blog posts.

But stay tuned! There is lots of good stuff coming up, including restaurant reviews, a trip to Boston and a recap of all the great food I eat, Christmas dinners and new recipes.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Chicken and Veg Fajitas

This could very well look familiar to my faithful readers (there are some out there, right?!. I can't remember if I've blogged about making chicken fajitas. I'm sure I have, because we really enjoy eating them. But I can't seem to find a post.

In any event, last Friday, we wanted to make dinner at home. I've been craving fajitas, so I stopped at Outpost to pick up supplies: chicken; red, yellow and green bell peppers; red onion; jalapeno; and tortillas. I originally wanted to marinate the chicken and peppers in fajita spice from the Spice House, but I didn't have the lime juice the recipe called for. So, we ended up just cooking the chicken and all the veggies in a skillet with Mexican seasoning: chili powder, garlic powder, pepper, salt, cumin and coriander. We served the fajitas on small tortillas from El Rey's, along with some guacamole and shredded pepper jack cheese.
For a side, I heated up a can of black beans, seasoned with some red onion, cumin, coriander, cayenne, salt and chili powder.

The fajitas were good as usual, but holy cow we had a hot jalapeno! It was quite a big one, and you could tell it was going to be spicy the minute Nate cut into it. Our eyes were watering, and I kept coughing. It was good, but maybe a teeny bit too spicy.

White Chocolate Candy Cane Cheesecake

Sounds delicious, huh? Oh, and it was!

I had to bring a dessert to a work holiday dinner. I never know what dessert to make for some reason. I guess I always feel like I have to make something fancy. I was doing some Googling and came across this recipe for White Chocolate Candy Cane Cheesecake from Midwest Living.
I had never made a cheesecake before, so I was a little nervous.

It turned out to actually be pretty easy. A bit tedious with all the steps and different levels of letting it cool, but overall, it wasn't too bad. The worst part was that I couldn't figure out if and when it was set.
It was still pretty jiggly after 40 minutes, so I baked it another 10. And it was still jiggly after those 10, so I baked it another 10. By then, I figured it was probably OK, and the top was browning quite a bit.

I followed the recipe exactly--the only thing I really changed is that I added more white chocolate to the top of the cake than the recipe called for (I put the melted white chocolate in a small Zip-Loc bag and snipped the edge off), and probably a bit more candy cane.

All the hard work definitely paid off--everyone at the party really liked it, and everyone requested leftovers to take home.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Smoked Sausage and Potatoes

We used to make this dish quite a bit, as it's one of Nate's favorites. We decided to make it this week, because we had a bunch of potatoes (both regular baking and purple (SUPER purple!) potatoes) from our last CSA box to use up as well as some leftover smoked sausage from a German soup we made in October (don't worry, it's been in the freezer since then). We also threw in about half a yellow onion we had (also from the CSA box).
The recipe is really easy, and it always makes enough for tasty leftovers. Here's what we did:

We cut up the potatoes (five or six of them? They were all different sizes) into pretty small chunks and tossed them with some spices, including garlic powder, pepper, crushed red pepper and cayenne pepper. We cooked them over medium in a skillet with some olive oil for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
We then added the chopped onions and sausage we cut into halves (below) and then quarters.
We cooked it for a bit longer (about 5-7 minutes (just need to have the sausage heated through)) and voila! That's all. We served the sausage and potatoes with a side salad.

Pasta Bake

Over the weekend, Nate and I and our friend Craig were talking about baked pasta for some reason. So, naturally, we developed a craving for a pasta bake and wanted to make one for dinner this week. I found an old Cooking Light recipe in my binder-o-recipes for a Baked Pasta with Sausage, Tomatoes and Cheese dish. It looked pretty easy and fairly healthy, so we went for it. I think we've made it before, but if we did, it was a long time ago.

Turns out, it wasn't quite as easy as I had hoped. I had some timing issues, couldn't tell if the meat was done, had too many noodles and got everything in the oven a little later than I had hoped.
To start, I couldn't find ziti at Outpost, so I used whole wheat penne noodles I found in the bulk food aisle. I grabbed a little more than the pound the recipe calls for, which turned out to be quite a bit (especially because penne really expands when it cooks!). Also, Outpost didn't have any fresh turkey Italian sausage (or any turkey sausage, for that matter) so we got just regular Italian sausage (which, of course, makes the dish a little less healthy). It was tasty, but because it's kind of pink, I couldn't quite figure out if it was actually cooked completely or just kind of naturally pink. So I ended up browning the meat for longer than I probably needed to.

The only other change I made to the recipe was that I put the basil in with the tomatoes and sausage when it was simmering. I'm not sure it made a difference, but maybe!

When I was putting the bake together, I didn't know if it would be saucy enough, as it didn't seem like there was enough tomato mixture for all those noodles. The end result turned out to be really, really good. There was enough sauce, just enough sausage and lots of good mozzarella and Parmesan. And it make a ton--usually we find that our serving sizes are a bit bigger than the Cooking Light serving sizes. Not this one, though--it really did make 8 servings.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Restaurant Review: Conejito's

Oh, Conejito's. What do I say about this place? I've been going to Conejito's for many, many years--my parents started going there well before I was in the picture, and they didn't stop after I was born. Other than my dad's Mexican, Conejito's was (likely) my first foray into Mexican food. I always loved it, and when my friends and I were able to drive in high school, we made Conejito's a regular stop on the weekends.

I haven't been going there much in the last few years, mostly because I've realized there are much better Mexican restaurants in Milwaukee (see this post for some of those places). Up until Saturday, I hadn't been to Conejito's for almost two years.

And ... I think it will likely be a while before I have it again. While it's a fun, funky place and definitely cheap (about $10 a person for food, beer and tip!), the food just really isn't that great. Either my tastes and interests have broadened (which I hope is true!) or the food isn't exactly what it used to be. It could be a bit of both.

We started with chips and salsa. I think Conejito's is probably one of the few Mexican restaurants in Milwaukee that doesn't automatically serve you chips and salsa. And I think that's good for two reasons. 1. Too often, that food goes to waste because they fill it so much and you never finish all of it. 2. I don't know about you, but if there are chips and salsa in front of me, I will eat and eat and eat ... which is never good. The salsa is pretty good--it's got a bit of a kick.

For my meal, I got what I always get--two bean tostadas, and two cheese and onion enchiladas. Plus, Nate and I split a plate of rice and beans. I really used to love these toastadas, but they seem kind of bland now. I couldn't even taste the beans on them. And, as I kept saying this to Nate (and do each time we're there), I think the tostadas we make at home are much better.

The flavor of the enchiladas is pretty good--the sweet onions with the salty cheese is a good combination. They are incredibly greasy, however, and I'm not sure I can handle that much grease any more! After a while, it seems like that's all I could taste.
So, overall, I would have to say I'm probably good on Conejito's for a while, and will stick to either making my own Mexican or going to one of my favorite local restaurants. But for a $10 meal and a beer, every now and then, I think I can handle a trip to Conejito's.

Restaurant Review: VIA Downer

Last Friday, we had tickets to the Milwaukee Repertory Theater with our friends Amanda and Jon. We always do dinner beforehand, and this time, we picked a restaurant three out of the four of us (including me) hadn't been to: VIA Downer, the sister restaurant to one of my favorite Milwaukee restaurants, Transfer. We also had a gift certificate, which is always nice!

The atmosphere at both restaurants is fairly similar--older buildings that still have the integrity and feel of an old building, but done up in a cool, funky style. VIA Downer seems a bit bigger than Transfer, and their menu seems to be more pasta and entree focused, rather than pizza focused, like Transfer.

There was a holiday event going on on Downer Ave. that night, so it was fairly crowded (the Milwaukee Brewers Racing Sausages even made an appearance). But the good news was that there were appetizer specials going on! All appetizers were half off, so we got two: the fried ravioli (easy enough to understand) and crostini Milano--slices of toasted bread with spinach, garlic, basil, tomatoes and goat cheese (but not quite enough goat cheese for our liking). Both were tasty and hit the spot.

For meals, Amanda and Jon each got a pizza--the Da Vinci for Amanda (it's one of my favorites--it has red sauce, pesto, mozzarella, feta, asiago and tomatoes) and a cheese pizza for Jon. Nate decided on a pasta dish--the fettucine carbonara, a tasty albeit rich mix of cream sauce, pancetta, eggs and parmesan. He let me had a small dish of it (in exchange for a slice of pizza, of course). It was definitely tasty, but I'm glad I only had a small bit, as it's very rich.

I hemmed and hawed over what to get, and finally decided on a pizza. The Florentine caught my eye--garlic sauce, spinach, tomatoes and ricotta. It was tasty, but could have used a little something more. Onions may have been good on it. As much as I love Transfer/VIA pizzas, I've concluded that I prefer their red or pesto sauces better than the garlic sauces for some reason. They just seem a bit more flavorful to me.

Overall, the food was good and we had a good experience. I'd definitely go back, especially since we got punch cards for frequent visits!