I didn’t know I had that …

I spent 20 minutes organizing my spice cupboard last night. I plan on sorting my pots and pans tonight, and maybe even the pantry, if I have time.

This urge to clean and organize is always with me, but every now and then it gets overwhelming and I go on a cleaning/tossing/sorting binge. It usually happens after the holidays, at the start of summer vacation and before a new school year begins.

Maybe, on a subconscious level, I know life is going to get busy and I feel I’ll be able to cope better with everything in its proper place.

Or maybe I just like to clean.

Either way, I’m coming across food items I didn’t know I had (and several still boxed appliances I forgot about, too). I used the jar of sun-dried tomatoes in last night’s dinner: Mediterranean Smothered Chicken from Iowa Girl Eats. Yum, yum, yum!

MEDITERRANEAN SMOTHERED CHICKENMediterranean Pasta

  • 4 small chicken breasts
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Garlic salt
  • Pepper
  • Angel hair pasta, 8 ounces
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large shallots, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • Salt & pepper
  • 1 cup marinated roasted tomatoes, chopped (I substituted sun-dried tomatoes)
  • 1 can quartered artichoke hearts, drained
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup half & half
  • Juice from 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup chopped basil

Pound chicken to even thickness then brush both sides with extra virgin olive oil and season with garlic salt and pepper. Saute in a large skillet over medium-high heat for 3-4 minutes a side, or until no longer pink in the center. Remove to a plate then set aside.

Add pasta to a large pot of salted, boiling water then cook until al dente. Drain then set aside.

Let skillet cool off the heat for a few minutes, then return to burner and reduce heat to medium. Add extra virgin olive oil and shallots then season with salt and pepper and saute until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add garlic then saute for 30 more seconds, stirring constantly.

Add roasted tomatoes, artichoke hearts, capers, and lemon zest then saute until heated through, about 2 minutes. Add chicken broth, half & half, lemon juice, parmesan cheese, and basil then reduce sauce slightly, about 2 minutes.

Divide pasta among plates then top with a chicken breast. Smother with tomato and artichoke mixture.

Source: iowagirleats.com

S is for summer — and salad, steak and sizzle

It finally feels like summer outside, which means more meals from the grill.

My husband handles the grilling in our family. I can grill. I have grilled, but I’m not a fan. I’m mostly scared of lighting the grill. Long story short: Scott saw a ball of flame as he pulled up the drive way the night I decided not to wait for him to get home.

Yes, one bad experience years and years ago freaked me out enough that I’ve yet to work up the nerve to try again. In my defense, it was a real bad experience.

Anyway, I was at the grocery store the other day because we were out of milk (we are always out of milk; this probably explains why my kids are tall), looking for something quick to make for dinner when I saw the new DOLE Salad Kits. Some people are against bagged salads. On nights I don’t feel like cooking, but want to make something healthy, I’m totally fine with grabbing on of these, tossing in some baked chicken, and calling it good.

That night, though, I didn’t want chicken. I wanted a steak salad, and I was going to make the steak myself. Girl Power! Or perhaps it was Grill Power. Ha!

I didn’t use the grill, though. Awhile back I had stumbled across a recipe about making the perfect steak on the stovetop with a cast-iron skillet, finishing it off in the oven, so I Googled that, opened the kitchen windows, and got ready to fake grill a steak. With my son looking over my shoulder – “Do you really know how to make steak, Mom?” – I made one of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

Even the picky eater agreed.

HOW TO COOK A STEAK ON THE STOVE AND IN THE OVENsteak salad

Remove the steak(s) from the refrigerator and let them come to room temperature.

Place the cast-iron skillet into the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

Remove cast iron skillet from the oven when the oven is fully heated, using oven mitts and kitchen towels. Place the skillet on a burner on the stove over high heat. Leave the oven on.

Lightly coat the steak with the oil and season both sides with salt and pepper to your liking.

Place the steak into the hot pan on medium-high heat. The steak will sizzle loudly and some oil may spatter from the hot pan, so use caution during searing.

Sear the steak for 2 to 3 minutes, then flip the steak using tongs and sear the other side for the same amount of time.

Open the oven and place the hot skillet with the steak in it in the oven, using oven mitts, to let it finish cooking. Let the steak cook for another 5 to 12 minutes, based on the level of doneness that you prefer.

Remove the pan from the oven and place the steak on a plate. Cover the plate with foil and let the steak rest for 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the thickness. This allows the juices to redistribute throughout the steak to make it juicy.

Recipe courtesy of: http://www.ehow.com

Something’s fishy …

I received an e-mail in April from a local grocery store chef. He was having a recipe contest at the store and asked if I’d like to be a judge. Food judging is perhaps my favorite perk of my job, so I wrote back “Yes!” and marked the date on my calendar.

A couple of weeks later, he sent out a reminder e-mail and mentioned that the contest is a seafood recipe contest.

Uh-oh.

I do not consider myself a seafood fan. I’m not adamant in my dislike for fish, lobster, etc., but I rarely order it in restaurants and never cook it. My husband and kids are Catholic, so we do a lot of breakfast-for-dinner on Friday nights during Lent. I didn’t back out on judging, though. I made a commitment and I was going to stick to it. Plus, I didn’t want to admit I didn’t like seafood.

It turns out my aversion is exactly why the chef wanted to have this contest. He loves seafood and has found others in the Midwest tend to shy away from it because it isn’t something we’re regularly exposed to. I nodded sagely as he told me this while three home cooks were making their recipes, scared to tell him I’m one of those people.

I confessed by the end of the evening, though. Every dish I tried that night was amazing! Within bites, I went from not liking seafood to looking up scallop recipes online. My family even bought me an electric fryer for Mother’s Day so I can make battered shrimp.

I found this recipe on Pinterest and made it for supper last week. It not only tastes great and it healthy, it can be made in less than 30 minutes. It’s the trifecta of winning.

PENNE ROSA WITH SHRIMPpasta rose

  • 12 ounces whole wheat penne
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 medium tomatoes (about 1/2 lb.) chopped
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 4 cups fresh spinach
  • 10 ounces medium raw shrimp, peeled and deveined (I bought frozen heat-and-serve shrimp. It’s smaller, but I didn’t want to mess up my first shrimp-cooking experience.)
  • 1/2 cup marinara sauce
  • 1/3 cup plain Greek yogurt
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese

Cook penne according to package directions, omitting salt and fat. Drain and set aside.

In a large skillet with a lid, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Add in garlic and red pepper flakes, cook for 2 minutes or until garlic begins to soften.

Add in mushrooms, tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, or until mushrooms begin to release their water.

Turn heat up to medium-high and add in shrimp. Cook for 1-2 minutes, or until shrimp are pink and opaque. Remove from heat, add in spinach and cover skillet. Let spinach wilt for 2 minutes.

Remove lid and place skillet back over low heat. Add the penne, Greek yogurt and pasta sauce. Stir until sauce is mixed well and all pasta and veggies are coated. Heat until just warmed through. Divide into pasta bowls and serve topped with parmesan cheese.

Recipe courtesy of: http://backtoherroots.com

When the moon hits your eye …

Pizza is one of the few foods everyone likes in my house.

Of course, none of us like the same toppings. B likes cheese only while E is OK with plain cheese or pepperoni. I prefer vegetarian or taco, while Scott likes meat combinations.

I make homemade pizza pretty regularly, but decided to try something new the other day: Stromboli. I knew Scott would like it, but I wasn’t sure about the kids. They like chicken. They like spinach. They like pizza. It seemed safe …

The verdict? Two yums up from Em and Scott. B ate his piece, but it wasn’t his favorite.

“Sorry, Mom,” he said.

Personally, I love this recipe. I will make it again because, as the main cook at my house, I choose the menu. Sometimes that power results in making something at least I know I’ll like. (Maniacal laugh.)

SPINACH-CHICKEN STROMBOLIstromboli

  • 1 tube of refrigerated pizza crust
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1½ teaspoons Italian seasoning
  • 3½ tablespoons canned Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 2 cups loosely packed spinach leaves
  • 8 ounces shredded, cooked chicken breast (about 2 cups)
  • 2 Roma tomatoes, diced
  • Alfredo or marinara sauce to dip in

Preheat your oven to the temperature to the temperature indicated on the dough package.

Working on a floured surface, roll the dough into a 12×15 inch rectangle on a floured surface. Spread 1 1/2 teaspoon of the oil over the entire surface of the crust. Evenly sprinkle with the Italian Seasoning and two tablespoons of the Parmesan on top.

Keeping the remaining toppings one inch away from all edges, evenly spread the spinach leaves, shredded chicken and tomatoes over the dough.

Working from the long end of the rectangle, roll up from one end to the other, like a cinnamon roll. Pinch seam shut and then pinch each end shut and tuck under toward seam.

Place the seam side down on your baking sheet sprayed lightly with nonstick spray. Brush the Stromboli with the remaining oil and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese. Gently cut 3 slits along the top with a sharp knife to let the steam escape.

Bake in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the top is golden brown. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before slicing into 1 inch thick slices. Serve with your favorite Alfredo or marinara sauce for dipping.

Recipe courtesy of Our Best Bites: Mormon Moms in the Kitchen by Sara Wells & Kate Jones

Going green. And red and white.

Day 2 of my increase-fruits-and-vegetable-intake experiment. I’ve learned that eating fresh means more prep time, but I am blessed with the two greatest kids in the world, so while I chopped green beans and peeled potatoes, they got everything ready for trash day and did their homework.

Then, while I was at a Girl Scouts meeting with Em, B took it upon himself to do the laundry.

Seriously. Best kids ever. They totally get a pass for trying only one bite of this meal. They both voted to top their pasta with spaghetti sauce instead.

Very good meal. Easy to make and great for lunch leftovers the next day!

BASIL VEGETABLE LINGUINE??????????

  • 8 ounces green beans, cut into ¼-inch pieces
  • 8 ounces red-skinned new potatoes, peels and cut into ¼-inch pieces
  • 12 ounces dried linguine
  • 1 cup pesto (or less to taste)
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 6 ripe plum tomatoes, cut into ¼-inch dice
  • ½ cup slivered fresh basil leaves

Bring saucepan of lightly salter water to boil. Add the green beans and quick until just tender, about 1 minute. Using a skimmer, remove them from the pot to a colander. Rinse under cold water to stop the cooking. Drain, pat dry and set aside.

Add the potatoes to the boiling water and cook until just tender, about 2 minutes. Drain the potatoes in a colander and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Drain, pat dry and set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the linguine and cook until just tender, about 8 minutes. Drain the pasta well and place in a serving bowl. Add the pesto and toss well. Season with pepper.

Sprinkle the green beans, potatoes and tomatoes over the linguine and top with the slivered basil. Serve immediately, tossing the pasta at the table.

Recipe courtesy of Celebrate! By Sheila Lukins

Do your homework, eat your veggies

There are days I feel like a hypocrite.

Here I am, a food writer, and I only made dinner twice last week. The other days were either leftovers, fend-for-yourself meals or something taken from the freezer.

I tell myself there’s no point in cooking when my husband is out of town for basketball since the kids’ reaction to something new is iffy. In reality, though, I was more likely distracted by a book, the season finale of “The Walking Dead” or even going for a run.

I ran out of excuses, though, when my son started talking about the report on Alzheimer’s disease he wrote for health class.

“Mom, there’s no cure for Alzheimer’s,” he said. “There’s only medicine to slow it down.”

We talked about why Alzheimer’s happens to some people and not others. Genetics plays a huge part, he said, but so does taking care of your body and mind.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“We have to be healthy,” he said. “We have to exercise and keep our brains sharp. We have to eat food that’s good for us, like fruits and vegetables. A lot of vegetables.”

I just looked at him. My son is my picky eater. There are some healthy foods he loves – oranges, fresh spinach, carrots and bananas – but there’s so much he won’t even try.

“Vegetables, huh?”

“Oh, man. Why did I write that in my report?”

POPEYE PANINIpanini

  • 2 ciabatta rolls, split
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, halved
  • 3 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly slices
  • 6 thin slices tomato
  • ½ cup baby spinach
  • A pinch each of salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Baked chicken, sliced (optional)

Preheat Panini grill to high.

Brush both the crust and sides of the rolls with a tablespoon of the oil. Place on a work surface, crust side down. Rub cut sides with garlic; discard the cloves.

On bottom halves, evenly layer with mozzarella, tomato and spinach. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and drizzle with remaining oil. Cover with top halves and press gently to pack.

Place sandwiches in grill, close the top plate and cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings.

Recipe courtesy of 200 Best Panini Recipes by Tiffany Collins

Game on!

I’m a planner.

I like making lists, I like doing research and, yes, my family’s vacations include an itinerary.

That’s why my kitchen table was covered with paper and cookbooks the other day. We were having some friends over for Game Night and I was looking for snack ideas. This wasn’t a formal dinner or even a potluck, but I think get-togethers, no matter how casual, are all about the food.

Over the years I’ve hosted Thanksgivings, a wine tasting, Memorial Day cookouts and Super Bowl parties. I had a get-together for the Olympic Games opening ceremony and presented an awesome spread for a Halloween party.

The pumpkin cheesecake was made to look like a Jack-O-Lantern.

Before each event, my husband asks me not to go overboard. (I think he’s having a hard time letting go of the 96 mini cupcakes I made for a friend’s baby shower.) My friend Cecelia has been known to text an hour before the party with two words: Stop cleaning.

I love them both, but I know myself. I decide on an idea and I go with it. And yes, I usually go overboard, but it’s a great way to try new recipes. If it doesn’t work out, I open a bottle of wine and everyone still has a good time. Most of the parties I host end up with everyone in the kitchen, sitting around the table and munching on olive and rosemary focaccia, red-eye deviled eggs or miniature fried tacos.

Bonus: My family dines on leftovers the next day.

Miniature food was the theme for Game Night. I made tiny cupcakes, mini cheesecakes, individual pizza and – because it’s National Peanut Month – Baby BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwiches. Roasted peanuts added to the coleslaw give the sandwiches an added crunch.

BABY BBQ PULLED PORK SANDWICHESBBQ pork sandwich

Ingredients for the pulled pork

  • 1 2-pound pork butt or shoulder
  • 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 cup root beer
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds, lightly crushed

Ingredients for the fixings

  • ½ cup chopped dry-roasted peanuts
  • About 2 cups BBQ sauce
  • 12 Hawaiian rolls, sliced in half
  • About 1 cup coleslaw

Put pork, broth, root beer, onion, bay leaves, and mustard seed in a slow cooker on low heat for about 6 hours or until the pork is tender.

Remove meat and discard liquid. Using 2 forms, shred the meat. Return shredded meat to the slow cooker and keep on low heat for 10 minutes or until you’re ready to serve.

Toss pork, peanuts and BBQ sauce together in a large bowl until combined. Fill each roll with about ¼ cup pulled pork and 2 heaping tablespoons of slaw.

Makes 12 sandwiches

Recipe courtesy of Tiny Food Party!: Bite-sized Recipes for Miniature Meals by Teri Lyn Fisher and Jenny Park

Think spring

I have cabin fever.

Big time.

I love the first few weeks of winter. I love using the weather as an excuse to curl up on the couch and read all weekend. It’s a great excuse for being lazy. But now that’s I’ve soaked up a whole bunch of nothing, I’m ready to do something.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature isn’t cooperating.

When nothing else to do last Saturday, I decided to clean out the freezer. I found a bag of frozen asparagus and decided to incorporate it in my dinner. Thank goodness the Groundhog didn’t see his shadow on Saturday. I’m ready for an early spring. Until that happens, though, I’ll make do with cooking meals that look like spring.

ASPARAGUS AND CHEESE STUFFED CHICKEN BREASTSstuffed chicken

  • 2 large skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • Salt and black pepper to taste
  • 4 asparagus spears, trimmed – divided
  • 2 slices cheese (I used cheddar)
  • Your choice of seasonings (I used Mrs. Dash Extra Spicy)

Preheat an oven to 375 degrees. Grease an 8×8-inch baking dish.

Place each chicken breast between two sheets of heavy plastic on a solid, level surface. Firmly pound the chicken with the smooth side of a meat mallet to an even thickness of about 1/4 inch. Sprinkle each side with salt and pepper.

Place 2 spears of asparagus down the center of a chicken breast. Break a slice of cheese in half and place it over asparagus. Repeat with the other chicken breast, and roll the chicken around the asparagus and cheese to make a tidy, compact roll. Place the rolls seam sides down in the prepared baking dish, and sprinkle each with spices of your choosing.

Bake in the preheated oven until the juices run clear when pricked with a fork, about 25 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the center should read at least 165 degrees.

Recipe adapted from allrecipes.com

Making dinner, making memories

The text came on a Monday afternoon.

“Porcupine meatball recipe. Can you e-mail me one if you have a good one?”

I re-read the message from my older sister several times, wondering what she meant by porcupine meatballs. Then a picture of the meatballs made with rice and served in a sweet tomato sauce popped in my head.

I loved porcupine meatballs when I was a kid! How could I forget them?

I found plenty of versions of the recipe online, eventually e-mailing my sister the one that seemed most like what we remembered. She texted me several times that night as she prepared them for her family.

“Minute Rice or regular rice?”

“Regular. Mom never had Minute Rice at home.”

“I have a can of crushed tomatoes. Can I use those instead of paste?”

“Sure. Just blend them first.”

She called a few hours later with one word: Yum!

“They were just like I remembered,” she said.

I made a batch two nights later and had to agree. With the first bite, it felt like I was back at my parents’ house, fighting to get a word in with all six of my siblings sitting at the dining room table.

Food has that power to trigger your memory with a scent or a taste. Even the visual can prompt an experience long since forgotten.

Not every meal I’ve had, or every meal I’ve made, is memorable. I have a few stories of disasters that are more entertaining than my successes, but I hope there’s one recipe or two that will stick with my kids, something that will prompt one to call the other and lead to an evening of shared memories at the dinner table – even if it’s only over the phone.

PORCUPINE MEATBALLSporcupine meatballs

  • 1/2 cup uncooked long grain rice
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/3 cup chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 can (15 ounces) tomato sauce
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

In a bowl, combine the first seven ingredients. Add beef and mix well. shape into 1-1/2-in. balls. In a large skillet, brown meatballs in oil; drain.

Combine tomato sauce, water, brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce; pour over meatballs. Reduce heat; cover and simmer for 1 hour.

Recipe courtesy of http://www.tasteofhome.com

Keep it simple, sweetie!

I cleaned out my spice cupboard the other day. The chore was one of my New Year Resolutions: Get organized.

Three days into 2013, I’ve had to adjust my resolutions already. One of my cooking goals this year was to try new foods. Then my husband and I took our kids sledding, and I ended up in the emergency room with a broken hand.

Nearly two weeks have passed since then and my right hand is still encased in a bulky cast – and will stay that way for at least another month, if not two. Clearly now is not the time to try new things in the kitchen. Instead, simplicity is the name of the game.

Being left-handed, I figured having only one hand in the kitchen wouldn’t be that bad.

I was wrong.

I had no idea how much I use my right hand to cook until I couldn’t. I’ve had to teach my daughter how to dice onions and tomatoes, and my son how to wash pots and pans.

Actually, that part is pretty awesome.

I spent the past few days pouring through cookbooks, looking for recipes with simple ingredients that I can make with one hand tied behind my back, so to speak. Don’t judge, but I even broke one of my late-night infomercial purchases – the GT Xpress 101 – from its residence in the cupboard above the refrigerator.

Stuffed chicken breasts in 15 minutes with only one machine to clean? Yes, please.

For those of you who didn’t call the 800-number, here’s a recipe for a quick and delicious pizza that can be made in a standard oven. The fresh pesto might even make your forget winter has just begun. Enjoy it and be safe!

FRESH TOMATO-PESTO PIZZAtomato-pesto pizza

For the pesto:

  • 4 cups basil leaves
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1/4 cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

For the pizza:

  • 1 Italian cheese-flavored pizza crust (such as Boboli)
  • 3 cups chopped seeded tomato (about 2 pounds)
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) shredded provolone cheese
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced basil leaves

Preheat oven to 475 degrees.

To prepare pesto, place 4 cups basil leaves and 2 garlic cloves in a food processor, and pulse 5 times or until coarsely chopped. With processor on, add broth, Parmesan, and oil through food chute; process until well-blended.

Place pizza crust on a baking sheet. Spread pesto over crust, leaving a 1/2-inch border; top with the tomato, garlic slices, and provolone. Bake at 475° for 12 minutes or until the cheese melts. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup basil. Cut the pizza into 8 wedges.

Recipe courtesy of The Best of Cooking Light by the Editors of Cooking Light Magazine