Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Grilled Summer Vegetable Parmigiana

I am a big junkie for the Italian classics, and my love for eggplant parm is no secret. In this summer heat though, those comfort foods I love seem sort of impossible to enjoy. I mean, we want to spend every sunny day grilling in the garden, not stirring a pot of red sauce. That being said, I figured out the perfect compromise of flavor between summer grilling and comfort food!

I would have grilled these outside to give the vegetables even more flavor, but I simply couldn't keep running in and out of the house that day because I had a particularly needy baby on my hands. You win some, you lose some.

Don't reach for store-bought red sauce - please! Red sauce is SO easy to make. All you need is a few cloves of garlic, some tomato paste, a jar (or carton) of good quality passata, and patience. Make a huge batch and freeze it - trust me, you'll never go back to the jarred stuff again! I did debate posting my own recipe for red sauce - I even took photos while making it this time - but I can't bear to part with the "secret family recipe". I mean, if I post my most guarded recipe on here, what is going to keep my family coming to visit me when I'm old? I need to keep something in my arsenal that I can take to my grave. Sorry, dear readers! You'll just have to come to my house for dinner sometime.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Spiced Lamb Burgers & Greek Veggies

I always look forward to our local farmers' market at the end of the month, because we have a fantastic local lamb farm that I buy meat from. Ground lamb is one of those things that you usually associate with the classic heavy meals; ie, shepherd's pie, moussaka, and other heavy wintry dishes. I think it's just as versatile as beef, though, and these lightly spiced lamb burgers are the perfect example of how good it can be on the grill!

Now, when I say "spiced," I don't mean spicy, I mean spiced. Cumin and coriander both pair fantastically with lamb, and a cool yogurt mint sauce on top can whisk your palate away to the Mediterranean. I didn't put mine on buns simply because it's hot out and I didn't feel like eating heavy bread, but by all means pop yours on a whole grain roll - the flavor of this burger can really stand up to whole wheat buns.

The veggie skewers are another flavorful summer side dish that kicks your basic sides to the curb; I recommend fresh oregano, but if you don't have any in the garden, dried will work just fine. Actually, after making this recipe, I went and planted some oregano so I can have the fresh stuff next time!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Chipotle Chicken Burrito Bowl

No, this isn't a copycat recipe from a popular chain restaurant, so don't get your panties in a twist. It's literally a chipotle pepper rubbed chicken breast, grilled and turned into a minimal-fuss dinner. It would be perfect one a day like today when it's too hot to do much cooking at all (and I apologize for complaining about the heat even though it's not that bad, but hey this is England and I'm not used to it).

I found a chipotle paste at Waitrose, but if you can find actual chipotle peppers in adobo, whizz them up in a food processor for a second and you've got the same thing. Butterfly your chicken breast (or pound it out so it's equal thickness) and rub the paste into all the nooks and crannies. You might want to wear gloves for that part, to avoid some unpleasant sensations if you should happen to rub your eye later.

Simultaneously, you'll want to get a pot of basmati rice going. You don't need much for this recipe, so for 4 servings I'd say cook 2/3 cups of rice. The secret is the seasoning: a few dashes of turmeric for color and flavor (and anti-inflammatory properties - yay!), a dash of chili powder, and a bay leaf. Trust me on the bay leaf; it's one of those secrets that will step your home cooking game up a notch in a really simple way.

While the chicken is marinating and your rice is bubbling away, you'll need to whip up a quick salsa. The secret to a really good salsa is starting with fantastic tomatoes - none of those orangey, mealy refrigerated supermarket ones - you want these to be soft, on the vine, and smell like tomatoes. If you can grow them yourself, you know how much better they are than anything you can buy in a store. Add to them 1/2 of a diced jalapeno or chili (adjust the heat to your taste), one clove of garlic minced super finely, the juice of 1/2 lemon or one lime, sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, and your favorite green herb (traditionally I'd say go with cilantro/coriander, but my hubby isn't a fan so I use fresh parsley from the garden). Wash and tear up some crisp lettuce leaves to line your bowl, but not too far in advance so that they don't get wilted and sad.

I cooked up some diced bell peppers and onions with smoked rapeseed oil until they were beginning to brown, because I think they're peppers & onions are totally necessary on a burrito bowl. Cook your chicken for 3 minutes on each side on a hot pan with 1/2 tbsp olive oil, OR pop it on a hot grill and add even more flavor. Dice it up and get ready to assemble greatness!

You can top off your burrito bowl with a few dollops of good natural yogurt to cool the heat a bit, or shake on more hot sauce if you like to live dangerously.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Chocolate Peanut Butter Avocado Mousse

I am not a baker. In fact, I don't make dessert much at all, save the occasional batch of ice cream when I actually have the patience and foresight to get the machine ready. I really wanted something cool, creamy, and chocolatey today, but someone ate all of the ice cream (and will consequently be sleeping on the sofa tonight. Humph!). I had a few avocados ripening on the windowsill and thought, hmmmm, let's give this avocado mousse thing a try. 

I sort of improvised and adapted the standard formula to suit my tastes: first, I added maca powder, because I really love the caramel-y flavor it adds, and I've been using it a lot lately in my smoothies. Maca powder is great for balancing hormones, and with all of the post-baby-body changes I've got going on, I can use all the hormonal balance I can get - plus it's rumored to help cope with stress, and what mom doesn't deal with that on a daily basis?

Then I added a big heaping teaspoon of this Pip & Nut Maple Peanut Butter - it's a great, simple no-nonsense natural peanut butter without palm oil or added sugar, and I'm a Reese's junkie so I'll take PB & chocolate any day of the week.

A teaspoon of organic honey and a splash of milk and a few minutes later I had this rich, velvety (with the occasional crunch of peanut, so use creamy if you want it totally smooth!) mousse. It is so rich that I only ate a few spoonfuls before popping it in the fridge to save for after dinner later. Definitely going to be making this one again!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Best Pan Fried Chicken & a "Grown Up" Italian Toastie

A long title for an important post. First up, I'm going  to be sharing my recipe for the best pan-fried chicken ever. Now, don't hear the world "fried" in there and think that this in unhealthy - pan fried simply means to cook it on the stove with a little bit of oil, in this case, olive oil. Obviously you can't cook a piece of chicken without any fat to lubricate it a bit - you'd end up with a charred piece of meat stuck permanently to your pan - the goal is to use a healthy fat, like olive oil or rapeseed oil (the best you can find/buy) and stick to cooking with that. 

So. Back to the chicken. I make chicken this way all the time - you can use boneless skinless thighs (my personal favorite), or chicken breast (which is what I had on hand this time). It's incredibly important to choose organic, free range chicken. Forgive me for getting preachy, but there is simply NO excuse for buying anything else. If you want to save cash, go for the skinless boneless thighs - loads of meat and less than half the cost of the breast - OR buy a whole chicken for the cost of two breasts and break it down yourself, using this handy video as a quick guide. 

The first thing you want to do is butterfly and/or pound out your chicken. It sounds complicated but basically means you make 2 simple cuts to open the breast out like a book, and if you're unsure about how to do it, just skip to the next step. If you want to give it a go, jump on over to YouTube and take your pick from loads of tutorial videos. 

Cover your chicken with nonstick/parchment paper (I don't use plastic wrap in my kitchen) and give it a few gentle whacks with a rolling pin (empty wine bottles work great too) until it's the same thickness. Don't pound it thin - you only want it to be the same thickness, so just give a couple whacks to the thickest part of the meat and you should be good to go. 3/8" is a good measurement - don't worry about being precise, just aim for a little less than 1/2" thick. 

Now, for seasoning. Sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, garlic powder, dried italian herbs (basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary), and paprika. Sprinkle liberally over both sides. 

Put about 1/2 tbsp of olive oil in a stainless steel or cast iron pan over medium heat (you can read more about why I don't use nonstick pans here) and cook your chicken for 3 minutes on each side. Turn the heat off, put a lid on the pan, and wait an additional 3 minutes - however if you use an electric stove, remove the pan from the heat at this point. 

Slice and put over salads, into sandwiches (like the one below), wraps, or just eat it on its own with some veggies on the side. I promise you, it will come out juicy and flavorful every single time. Want to make it for taco night instead? Nix the dried Italian herbs and sprinkle on some ground cumin and chili powder instead. 

Ok! Now we're ready to assemble a truly badass chicken sandwich. My husband actually dubbed this "the best sandwich [he'd] ever eaten", so there you have it. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pink Pasta!

Pasta salad: often we think of a sad bowl of mayo-dressed macaroni, left out in the sun to die at a barbecue or picnic. But that need not be the case! This super yummy, veggie-laden pasta salad makes a great summer meal for the whole family, or an impressive side dish for your next potluck. Plus, it's pink from those yummy seasonal fresh beets, so it's pretty to boot. I'm all about mixing up salads for summer meals lately. I love a good pasta dinner for Meatless Monday (or any day of the week, really) but July isn't really spaghetti & red sauce weather, so I had to think outside the box a little. This dish is filling yet cool and refreshing, packed with flavor, and is a true 'eat the rainbow' type recipe.

In the warm(er) summer months I love to keep fresh pesto on hand. Whether I make it myself or buy good quality, it's so delicious to toss a spoonful into dishes to really liven up the taste. If you're buying it, go for fresh if you can, and make sure the ingredients don't list any nasties.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Red Wine Braised Lamb Shank

So I sent out the hubby to pick up a bottle of red the other week, and he came home with... well, with something I could only stomach one glass of. Sorry, dear. It's the thought that counts.

But being someone who can't let anything go to waste, I had to figure out a recipe to use it all up. I mean, it's a lot of wine, and good or not, we don't waste wine in this house! Luckily at our farmer's market this past Sunday, our local lamb vendor had some gorgeous looking lamb shanks. I have to admit I'd never cooked them myself before, being that lamb isn't that widely available in America, but I took the well-beloved classic recipe for osso bucco (hailing to my Italian roots) and tweaked it a smidge. The result: A rich, hearty dish that is so satisfying on a cold rainy day - aka, summer in the North.

It's a great set-it-and-forget it kind of meal, because it takes about 10 minutes of prep and then you don't need to fuss with it at all, just let it slowly roast away in the oven for a few hours. I imagine you could make it in a slow cooker, too, but then it might end up looking a bit anemic instead of lovely and browned.

The ingredients are fairly simple: 2 (or 4) lamb shanks; a large sprig of fresh rosemary; 1 cup of dry red wine; 1 cup of organic chicken stock (or vegetable); 1/2 one red onion, chopped; 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar.

Season the lamb with salt & pepper. In a large enameled pot, brown the lamb shanks in olive oil for 2-3 minutes on each side over medium high heat. Remove from the pot, reduce the heat slightly and add the onion & garlic. Stir for several minutes until the onion begins to brown; then add the balsamic vinegar and scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to deglaze it. Return the lamb shanks to the pan, add the rosemary, red wine, and stock, and place in the oven at 180C/350F/Gas Mark 5 for 1 1/2 - 2 hours (or until the meat is falling-off-the-bone tender). I turned the meat every half hour, but if you want to set it & forget it, this step isn't really necessary. Remove the lid for the last 10 minutes or so to brown the meat, and voila!

Best served with lovely seasonal greens, such as asparagus, haricots vert, or broccoli rabe, and a yummy root vegetable (I chose simply boiled little carrots with 1tsp honey and butter to glaze).

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Ham Shank: The Forgotten One-Pot Wonder

This recipe is a total throwback to simpler times, when dinner was literally boiled meat in a pot with a bunch of root vegetables. Doesn't sound appetizing? Then think again.

The ham shank is an incredibly flavorful, ridiculously inexpensive cut of meat, and this recipe hails from a time when every part of the animal was used because, well, meat was expensive. And it still is today, so next time you think that you need to save a bit of dough, ask your butcher for a ham shank. This whole big thing cost me £3, and we've gotten 2 meals out of it already, with leftovers to spare. If you like ham, you'll love it. It's simply a cheaper cut of meat that has been cured the same way.

For this recipe, I used potatoes, swede (that's like a big giant turnip, for my American readers), carrots, one red onion, a bulb of garlic, and a head of cabbage. The seasonings in the pot included 6-8 whole peppercorns, 2 bay leaves, 2 sprigs of rosemary and a handful of fresh parsley (stems and all). Cut up all your vegetables into big 2-inch chunks, and cut the head of cabbage into quarters. Try to aim to have everything cut to the same thickness so that it takes the same amount of time to cook.

Begin by covering the shank with water in a stock pot. Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer for approx 1-1 1/2 hours, skimming the top of the pot occasionally to remove any foam & sediment that might come out of the bone. Seriously though, leave it and don't worry about it, this is easy.

When the meat is fork tender, chuck everything except the cabbage in the pot, cover and cook for another 20 minutes, then add the cabbage and cook for the remaining 10. Drain the vegetables, lift out the ham and pull the meat off using forks and/or a knife.

To make a quick gravy, make a roux from 1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp flour in a pan, then add a few ladles of the cooking water. Add white pepper and salt (to taste).

Tadaaa! A big, hearty, healthy, delicious meal that your great-grandmother would be proud of.