Saturday, April 23, 2011

IS IT A PIZZA OR A PITA?

As much as I enjoy cooking at home, I really enjoy eating out nearly as much. It may be due to the fact that when I'm out for lunch or dinner it is a more social time since normally I am eating alone at home. Meeting friends for lunch or dinner is something I do often - bringing them home to eat with me, not so much unless it's a special occassion.
There are an abundance of wonderful places to eat in our area and occassionally, I will have something at a local restaurant that I will attempt to recreate at home for days when I don't have someone to go out with.

Chicken "Pitza" dinner a al Aladdin's
Such is the case with the Chicken Pitza at Aladdin's Eatery. Part pita wrap, part pizza, this little item packs a lot of flavor. Their menu describes this as: a pita with "Honey Dijon dressing and Garlic Sauce topped with chunks of char-grilled chicken tenders, julienne green peppers and diced scallions".  Yum!

Although I have a date set up to meet a friend for lunch at Aladdin's again next week, I have been so craving one of these pitza's I've decided to try to make one at home. I hope to quench the craving at home allowing me try another of their wonderful menu items this time around. 

Hoping that the nice folks at Aladdin's will feel that imiatation is the sincerest form of flattery, I do believe I've hit the nail on the head here.  To get a full middle Eastern effect, try my hummus recipe to go along with this meal.  I chose a simple salad for tonight because the fresh greens are available now from the farm markets. 

CHICKEN PITZA
For the pita, make sure you find a true pita bread and not the pocketless flatbreads that are all over the groceries these days.  Split the pita into to rounds through the pocket (you cannot do that with a flatbread). 
1 pita round (split in halve horizontally - half set aside for another use)
1 marinated chicken cutlet* (see recipe below)
5 Tablespoons honey mustard garlic sauce **(see recipe below)
4-5 thin strips green pepper
1 scallion sliced thinly

PREPARE THE CHICKEN

Preheat a heavy grill pan over medium high heat. Remove the chicken cutlet from the marinade and wipe off most of the marinade and discard. Grill the chicken on the preheated pan 2-3 minutes per side, depending upon the thickness of the cutlet.


Remove the chicken from the grill and cut into chunks.

ASSEMBLE THE PITZA

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

On the pita half, evenly spread the honey mustard garlic sauce. Place on a sheet pan and top with the chicken pieces, green pepper strips and scallion slices.

Bake the pitza for 10-15 minutes.
Watch carefully toward the end of the baking time so that the sugars in the honey mustard sauce do not burn.

Remove from the oven, cut into four slices and serve.
*MARINADE FOR CHICKEN
Don't marinate the chicken for too long before grilling or the lemon juice will begin to cook the chicken rather than simply flavor it.  Marinate at least 10 minutes, not longer than 20. 

juice from half a fresh lemon
1 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
pinch of cayenne pepper
2-3 ounce chicken cutlet

**HONEY MUSTARD GARLIC SAUCE
I mixed up this sauce the night before so that it was waiting for me to use. This makes about 2 cups of sauce to keep in the fridge for other things like sandwich spreads, fresh veggie dip or asauce for chicken fingers.

6 Tablespoons mayonnaise
1 Tablespoon prepared Dijon-style mustard
2 Tablespoons honey
1 garlic clove - turned to paste

Mix well and refrigerate for at least a few hours for the flavors to combine.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

CHASING DUST BUNNIES AND A SPRING AWAKENING

Typical of early springtime in Ohio, we’ve recently had a day or two of really nice weather and then a drop back into the shivery damp that reminds us that Mother Nature truly has a wicked sense of humor.

April is time to change our wardrobes from bulky wool sweaters and leg-hiding tights to sleeveless tops and lighter fabrics that expose our pale limbs to the light of day. Now is the time to open windows and let in the breeze and sunlight so that we can find those cobwebs and dust bunnies that have skittered unseen across the floor all winter.

My kitchen also generally undergoes a transformation in spring. While it isn’t yet ready to give over to summer salads and barbecues in the back yard, I find myself passing over recipes for meatloaf and stews in favor of lighter fare. Macaroni and cheese makes way for pasta primavera. Long baking roasts take a back burner to quick sautés with light sauces. Hearty Chowders give way to lighter, broth based soups.

The grocers and farm stands are still stocked with root vegetables from winter, but tender springtime choices are beginning to show up regularly such as asparagus and young spinach. The recipe offered below makes the switch from heavy cream-based soups that were warm and comforting last month, to light and refreshing quite nicely. Using some winter pantry staples but leaving room for springs freshest offerings, this is a showcase for clean fresh flavors. Paired with a fresh green salad this soup is a perfect choice for a light lunch. For dinner, add a sturdy sandwich on the side and you have a terrific transition meal for a cool spring night.

A chance peek at last year’s chive pot surprised me with new shoots already large enough to cultivate. A small bunch was a nice addition to this recipe but if your chives aren’t up yet or you don’t want to go purchase any, this soup would be just as good without them.


ZUPPA DI PRIMAVERA
(Soup of Spring Awakening)
Nothing is easier than this soup.  Not at all fancy, it is springtime in a bowl - clean flavored and straightforward. 
1 ½ cups vegetable or chicken stock or broth (low sodium)
1 small new potato, washed and diced
1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced thinly
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives
3-4 fresh asparagus spear, washed, trimmed and cut on the bias into 1/2-inch pieces
Salt and pepper to taste
For the soup: Place broth in a small saucepan and heat to boiling over medium-high heat. Add the diced potatoes and sliced carrots; simmer for 20 minutes. Add the asparagus pieces and about half the chives. Simmer for 5 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with a few more chopped chives.


3 CHEESE PANINI
This sandwich was inspired by a lunch over at one of my very favorite local bars, The Ido, down on South Main Street. This was served as one of their daily lunch specials and may just be one of the best things I’ve ever eaten there. Except maybe for their pot pie soup…or maybe their tortilla soup….or maybe their Friday fish fries.........

What's so special about a grilled cheese sandwich?  I think what caught us all off guard was the use of thick sliced, homemade style bread and then that it had been grilled with Parmesan Cheese on the outside of the bread.  I think I captured the idea here, not exactly the flavor, but you get the idea.  Feel free to mix up the cheeses but DO try the parm on the outside.  Also, if you happen to have gigantic sized bread like I had tonight, you might want to double up the inside cheeses so the bread doesn't overpower the cheesey goodness.

2 slices whole wheat bread
2 teaspoons softened butter
1 teaspoon pesto (optional, The Ido did not use this)
2 slices American cheese
4 tablespoons shredded mozzarella cheese
2 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese


Heat a heavy skillet or grill pan over medium high heat. Spread pesto over one side of one slice of bread and arrange American and mozzarella cheeses evenly over the pesto. Top with the other slice of bread and butter the top and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of the parmesan cheese.


Perfect spring soup - simple and delicious.  Zuppa di Primavera and 3-Cheese Panini.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

CHINESE DINNER AT HOME

A quick stop at the grocery this past Saturday to pick up a bag of raw sugar and a small can of pineapple ended up, as usual, with me wandering the store oooohing and aaahing over everything.  The Giant Eagle at Chapel Hill is undergoing a bit of a transformation and I'm becoming far more infatuated with the store than any other in the GE chain around here.  They've got a lovely new cheese section, a sushi counter, expanded prepared foods counter that includes some tasty looking sandwiches and salads, plus a new salad bar.  I cannot wait to see what the rest of the store ends up looking like and could only hope that the GE store near my home might undergo this same transformation.

In any case, of course I took a saunter by the fresh meat counter and a small steak was peeking out from behind it's price tag more or less asking me to take it home.  Weighing in at less than 5 ounces, this mini top sirloin steak was the perfect size for my dinner one night the upcoming week.  Recent cravings for Chinese Beef and Broccoli was my inspiration for taking this steak home, so a quick turn through the produce department to pick up a few broccoli crowns and I was set.

Chinese cooking is not something I'm very adept at and frankly my palate isn't that sophisticated when it comes to this cuisine.  The only exposure I had to it growing up was Chicken Chow Mein in the can from La Choy, and to this day I haven't grown much past sweet and sour chicken and egg rolls and General Tso's chicken served up at the local House of Hunan.  I've seen friends order Beef and Broccoli and it's always looked so good, so this was my chance to try something new at home without giving up my General's chicken next time we hit the local Chinese restaurant. 

I found a basic recipe on the web for this and tweeked it a bit.  Adding some sugar snap peas (because I love all things pea related), a pinch of crushed hot pepper for spice and some cashews for added crunch and I think this turned out nicely.  Served over a bed of boil-in-bag brown rice the recipe as made with the quantities below did make a very generous portion.  This easily serves one very hungry person or one not-starving person with a small portion left over for lunch another day.

BEEF AND BROCCOLI

Simple ingrediants for my dinner tonight. 
For the sauce

2 teaspoons oyster sauce
 1/2 teaspoon Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken broth or water


Prepare the sauce: Stir together the sauce ingredients in a small bowl.


In a small bowl prepare the marinade (the bowl large enough to hold the sliced steak)
Combine the following:
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon Chinese rice wine (or dry sherry)
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


Add the steak to the marinade and let sit for 10-15 minutes

Meanwhile, blanch the broccoli: Cook the broccoli (or mixture of broccoli and peas)  in a small pot of boiling, salted water until tender-crisp, about 2 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

Heat a large frying pan or wok over high heat until a bead of water sizzles and instantly evaporates upon contact. Add the cooking oil and swirl to coat.
Add the beef and immediately spread the beef out all over the surface of the wok or pan in a single layer (preferably not touching). Let the beef fry undisturbed for 1 minute.
Flip the beef slices over, add the garlic to the pan and fry for an additional 30 seconds to 1 minute until no longer pink.
Pour in the sauce, add the blanched broccoli and bring to a boil. Add a pinch of red pepper flakes, if desired, and cook, stirring, until the sauce boils and thickens, about 30 seconds. 

Serve over the rice and sprinkle with chopped unsalted cashews. 

Nice modifications to this dish would be the addition of mushrooms or water chestnuts. 

Sunday, April 3, 2011

SIMPLE BREAKFASTS ON THE GO

Frankly one of the hardest things about the day for me is making breakfast. Everyone says that if you want to loose weight, or just plain be healthy, the best thing you can do for yourself is eat breakfast. I've also heard that the best thing you can do in order to loose weight is to add fiber to your diet. So, I'm attempting to do both on a daily basis. Realistically, a bowl of Cheerios sounds pretty good for me but it doesn't really cover the fiber part of the deal. Even the whole grain ones don't do it.

For a few months now I've been working on a small number of really easy, really portable, fairly healthy, breakfasts that I can make or assemble ahead of time, pick up and run out the door with in the mornings when I'm still blurry eyed, then eat at my desk. That means no bowls of cereal because the boss tends to not appreciate the milk dribbling down my chin while I'm trying to work. Armed with these few criteria, I have been trying out things and have come up with a short list of "go to" breakfast meals that I will share because I'll bet I'm not alone in this particular quandry.

One of my favorite email newsletters comes weekly from Eating Well magazine. I used to subscribe to the magazine until I gave up all subscriptions in an attempt to save myself some money. Their email version is packed with great, healthy eating ideas and recipes and I've found some to add to my regular cooking portfolio.

This breakfast bar came to me via the newsletter a few months ago and I've really fallen in love with it. It's easy to make, delicious to eat, portable and nutritious. BINGO! The perfect breakfast. I change this up just a bit by modifying the dried fruits, and today I added a few chocolate pieces for a little added sweetness. At about 25o calories per bar I can add a glass of lowfat chocolate milk to this and have my breakfast.

One of the best things this recipe did was to introduce me to a new product: Almond Butter. I'd never had this before and it's really very good. I also change up the type of honey from time to time. I've become very fond of buckwheat honey for it's strong, almost molasses flavor and aroma. It give this bar a bit more ooomph than plain clover honey.  Or, of course, you can substitute a good, mild molasses.  I also sometimes substitute peanut butter for some of the almond butter.

I've also been caught substituting some of the dried fruit with a small amount of mini-Reese's pieces or M&M's or mini-chocolate chips and even a bit of sweetened coconut.  The only trick to substitution is to keep the amount limited to 1 cup total.

You make these a lot like Rice Krispie treats. Add the melted ingredients to the dry and mix very well. Make sure you compact these VERY tightly into the pan or they fall apart when you take them out to cut.

ALMOND HONEY POWER BAR
Makes 8 bars - enough to last two weeks if you eat one every other day.

In a large bowl, mix the following:
1 cup unsweetened whole-grain puffed cereal (they recommend Kashi's 7 Whole Grain Puffs)
1 cup mixed dried fruits (currants, raisins, dried cranberries, dates, dried apricots, whatever you like)

Spread the following into an even layer in the bottom of a medium size saucepan and toast over a medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, making sure to shake or stir them so they do not burn. They're done with the oats and almonds are lightly browned:


1 cup old-fashioned oats
1/4 cup slivered almonds
1/4 cup sunflower seeds
1 Tbls. flaxseeds
1 Tbls. sesame seeds (I skip these and use pepitas instead)

Remove from the pan into the bowl with the cereal and dried fruits in. Wipe out the pan to use in the next step.

In the saucepan, mix the following and melt over medium heat:

1/4 cup almond butter
1/4 cup turbinado sugar
1/4 cup honey or molasses
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

When the sugar is melted, set the pan aside while you prepare the dry ingredients into the larger bowl.
Add in the melted items and stir THOROUGHLY.
Pack tightly into the pan and put in the refrigerator until well chilled, overnight is good.
Remove the mixture from the pan and cut into 8 bars. Store sealed tightly in a plastic bag for up to two weeks.  Each bar is about 250 calories