Monday, April 12, 2010

Mexican Lasagna


This recipe came from Rachel Ray, and I've done a bit of tweaking after making it a few times. Tweaking ... funny I would use that word.  My husband has a knack for nicknames, and he long ago dubbed Rachel "Stumpy McTweek."  Stumpy, for her stature.  Tweek, for her beyond-high-strung demeanor, which is nearly impossible to attribute to natural causes. It may be cruel, but it's accurate.  I understood the beauty of this moniker while watching "30 Minute Meals" with the TV on mute, as I could no longer stand the sound of her voice.  EVOO, YUMMO, JUST LET IT HANG OUT, OMFG I WANNA KILL YA.  So, Stumpy McTweak she is, forevermore. 

Hold on, no need to call the food police just yet.  Even Anthony Bourdain, one of my personal heroes, has his issues with Rachel Ray (google it). But as much as it pains me to admit, some of her recipes are good. Good. Not amazing. Not life-changing. Good. I've made a few things out of the original 30 Minute Meals cookbook and they weren't bad.  As much as I want to dislike Rachel, because she annoys the bejesus out of me, I can't help but appreciate a few of her recipes.  Mexican Lasagna is one of them.

This recipe includes one of my favorite foods, ground chicken.  I had never had ground chicken before a few years ago, at a Thai place.  It was sauteed with vegetables, in a really spicy sauce, and served over rice.  It was a revelation.  I've never cared for ground turkey; I find the texture gritty, and the flavor gamey and gross.  But ground chicken is delicious!  The simple, pure taste of chicken breast, but with a texture entirely unlike the chicken you're used to eating.  Sort of like ground beef, but filled with the righteous indignation of being HEALTHIER!  LEANER!  Ah yes, healthy righteousness. The best kind.

So I got on a kick with the ground chicken after eating it at the Thai place. Only one grocery store near me carried it on a regular basis, and until recently, it was priced pretty high when compared with chicken breasts.  So I got the notion to grind my own chicken.  It sounds sorta crazy, until you consider the fact that I own a Kitchen Aid.  One of the best kitchen appliances of all time.

Hear the angels singing?


The Kitchen Aid was a gift from my mother several years ago.  I've used it to make a myriad of things, including my cheesecake.  I purchased a meat-grinding attachment for the mixer and I've been grinding my own chicken ever since.  I save a few pennies, maybe not enough to make the grinder pay for itself, but I GRIND MY OWN MEAT!  How cool is that, in this day and age?  It's pretty frickin' cool, I tell ya.  I can buy chicken breasts on sale, and then grind them at my leisure.  And I know exactly what is in that ground chicken, because I ground it myself.  I love it.


You want the chicken to be partially frozen as it will grind more easily.  Slice it into long, thin strips.



To me, that's the most interesting part of this recipe, it was the impetus for me learning to grind my own chicken.  It's a good casserole.  It's great for a potluck.  It's perfect to take to a friend who is home on bed-rest, before she gives birth to what is sure to be a ridiculously cute baby. =)  It was fun and easy to make, and there's lots of room to improvise.  I'm looking forward to all the other things I can make with ground chicken. Tacos. Chili. Lettuce Wraps. Have fun with this one, I sure am.


Assemble the ingredients.


Grease the pan.


Brown the chicken, onions and garlic with the spices.


Add the beans, corn, tomatoes and hot sauce.


And cook until it looks like this.


Slice some good tortillas.


Assemble the casserole; meat mixture, tortillas, cheese.


Repeat.


Bake.


TaDa!

Mexican Lasagna by Bonzo Bean, ala Rachel Ray, a.k.a. Stumpy McTweek

See Rachel Ray's original recipe here.

Ingredients
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 1/2 pounds ground chicken breast
  • 2 T chili powder
  • 1 T  ground cumin
  • 1/4 t cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 (15-ounce) can black beans, drained
  • 1 cup medium heat taco sauce
  • 1 (14-oz) can stewed or fire roasted tomatoes
  • 1 cup frozen corn kernels
  • Salt to taste
  • 8 (8 inch) flour tortillas
  • 3-4 cups shredded cheddar and pepper jack cheese
  • 2 scallions, finely chopped
  • Garnish with hot sauce and sour cream
Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Heat a large skillet over medium high heat.  Add 2 T olive oil and heat until shimmering.  Brown chicken with onions, garlic and spices 5-8 minutes.  Add tomatoes, hot sauce, beans and corn.  Cook about 10 minutes more.

Cut torillas into quarters.  Grease a 9 x 13 baking dish.  Build the casserole in layers; meat mixture, tortillas, cheese.  Repeat.  Bake for 15 minutes until golden and bubbly.  Serve and garnish as desired.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Scalloped Potatoes, Filet Mignon, Sauteed Onions and Mushrooms

Julia Child is famous for saying "no excuses, no explanations."  But one of the pitfalls of being a Virgo is the inherent desire for perfection.  Gorgeous photos, delicious food, engaging writing; that's what I'm striving for when I post.  The problem with this philosophy is that it's relatively difficult to do all three of those things concurrently and consistently, especially when the blog is a hobby and you have a day job. The idea is also antithetical to the nature of a blog.  It's not a book, and is not fussed over for years before being published. This is not a complaint by any means, but an observation about the learning process I've undertaken.  

I consider myself a competent-or-better cook.  I am a novice photographer.  I am a newb when it comes to blogging.  Last weekend brought all of my shortcomings into focus.  Some of the pictures were great, largely due to full daylight helping me along.  But the best part of what I cooked came after dark, when it's difficult to take pictures (without a more advanced camera, or expensive lighting).  Finally, I found myself with little interesting to say.  Woe. There was plenty to say, but it wouldn't crystallize into anything worth reading.  This is likely due to the fact that I tried to write after eating; while in a food coma, and feeling exceptionally fat, dumb, and happy. 

However, I am disinclined to throw out the pictures I liked, or the recipes themselves, because what we ate last weekend was really, really good.  And as a good friend reminded me, "this is my life," not content for a trendy magazine. So here we go, with me cringing all the way at the potential criticisms.  But this is all part of what I want to learn with this blog; how to do something I love without being paralyzed by the desire for perfection.  Welcome to group therapy, coffee is on the sideboard, choose any available seat.

And so...

It was a good weekend for comfort food.  The past couple weeks had been feeling Spring-like, but Seattle has a way of backsliding into winter on you without notice.  I wanted something hearty for our big weekend meal, maybe even a bit decadent, to fend off the cold and wind.  I didn't necessarily want to spend the entire day in the kitchen though.  I split the difference, and made one recipe which required a bit of prep, and extended cooking time.  The other two dishes I made are easy favorites I know by heart, requiring little actual effort on my part.


For the "thinking recipe" I chose scalloped potatoes.  It was Easter weekend and I've always had a soft spot for scalloped potatoes and spiral-cut ham, followed by Cadbury eggs. My husband isn't a ham guy, but he loves potatoes, so there we are.  I've never made scalloped potatoes before.  I don't know why, I really like them, but the last time I remember eating them my mother made them. Her recipe is good; simple, potatoey and creamy.  It's adapted from the Better Homes and Gardens Complete Step-by-Step Cookbook (1978).  I didn't change much, but I did add cheese and some additional spices to try to boost the flavor, which even Mom said could seem bland.


The potatoes were delicious. The flavor was quite good; rich Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet onion, Gruyere cheese. The texture was excellent; creamy sauce and fully cooked, tender potatoes. Their appearance, however, looked a bit like an oil slick.  I only used 3 T of butter, some recipes called for significantly more, but when combined with the Gruyere you would have thought an entire stick of butter was in the dish.  Now, that's not to say it didn't TASTE REALLY GOOD, but had I been serving these potatoes to company I would have been a bit embarrassed at their greasy appearance.  And that's what I get for not following mom's recipe, and trying to get all high-falutin' with my fancy French cheese.  Mom's potatoes did not include cheese or butter and were never greasy, but rich, creamy and delicious. So in the interest of full disclosure, I did not make Mom's recipe exactly as written.  This happens to be a pet peeve of hers, so I wanted to put that out there.  =)
  

But then we ate the potatoes again the next day, after I had written the above "excuses." Disregard everything I said about the butter and cheese; I wouldn't change a thing.  How could I have been so wrong?  The next day, the potatoes were unreal!  They reheated in the microwave absolutely perfectly (on 50% power for about 2 minutes).  No separating of the sauce, no oily plate under a disintegrated potato mush.  It was a solid slice of casserole, like a lasagna.  The potatoes maintained their integrity insofar as shape and texture. The cheese was sublime.  I cannot believe how much difference a day made to their appearance.  My guess is that the post-cooking trip in the fridge gave the potatoes a chance to soak up more of the sauce.  So my advice is to make 'em the day before.  Reheat at 300 degrees until hot and prepare to eat way too much.  And isn't that almost perfect for a recipe like this?  You have a big gathering to attend on Sunday...make the dish on Saturday and relax.

The Process

For the scalloped potatoes you want to choose a good boiling potato, or one that holds its shape when cooked.  Yukon Golds are my favorite potato; they have a rich, buttery taste and excellent texture.  You could also use redskins, but want to avoid a russet potato that would disintegrate while cooking for a long period of time.  I also think the milk you choose is important.  I used whole milk and was pretty satisfied with the consistency of the resulting sauce. Some recipes call for heavy cream, but you have to be very careful to keep the temperature below a simmer to avoid curdling.  I wasn't interested in having to watch these potatoes that closely, so I chose milk.

The assembly of the dish is rather straightforward.  Peel and slice the potatoes 1/8" thick. You can keep the potatoes in a bowl of cold water to avoid browning; both before and after slicing.  Then you dry the potatoes on paper towels, or in a clean kitchen towel, lay them in a baking dish, and layer all other ingredients on top.  It took a little time, but wasn't complicated.  After the dish is assembled it cooks for about 1 hour and 45 minutes.  Plenty of time to prepare an entree and a side dish without feeling pressured.




For the entree and second side dish I made Filet Mignon with sauteed mushrooms and onions. There is no combination of food we seem to enjoy as much as a good steak, smothered in earthy mushrooms and caramelized onions.  Simple to prepare, and takes almost no brain-power whatsoever.  Filet is one of our favorite cuts because it's so tender, and at 12 noon on Easter Sunday, they were an easy last-minute option in the grocery store. These filets were not the most visually impressive I've purchased, they weren't exceedingly thick or marbled.  However, they were insanely good.  It's all about the cooking method; a quick sear and a short blast in a very hot oven.  


For the mushrooms and onions I slice a couple onions, add a package of sliced mushrooms, and cook them down in olive oil and butter until dark and caramelized.  This time I wanted to spiff it up a bit, and used crimini instead of button mushrooms.  WOW that was a good decision, the mushrooms had a toothier texture and a richer, earthier flavor.  After the onions and mushrooms had cooked down I added some liquid to the pan to make them saucier.  This addition was a huge success and improved not only the flavor of the vegetables, but their appearance as well.  They came out of the pan deeply brown in color, glossy, and intensely flavorful.


So after all the dithering, what you see here was a really great Sunday dinner. The potatoes took some time, but were worth it, especially the next day.  The filet and mushroom/onion combo is a simple meal you can make anytime and is seriously delicious.  If you buy your filets at Costco you don't even have to wait for a holiday weekend; you can get four fat steaks for around $20.  I hope that you give these recipes a try, and I hope you come back and tell me about it. And remember, you don't have to be perfect, just have fun.  It's a lesson that I need to remind myself of on occasion.


Scalloped Potatoes

Adapted from my mother's recipe, which was adapted itself as mentioned above.  Thanks Mom! =)

Ingredients:

6-8 Yukon Gold Potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8" thick
1 small sweet onion, sliced very thinly
1 1/2 t salt
1 t pepper
1/4 t each of dry mustard and garlic granules
1/2 c flour
1 c shredded cheese, I used Gruyere
2 c milk, heated in the microwave until hot
3 T butter

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and butter a large baking dish.  You don't want the potatoes to be more than a couple inches thick in the pan.  

Dry the potato slices in paper towels, they layer half in the greased baking dish.  Then layer half of the onions on top.  Sprinkle with half the seasoning, half the flour, and half the cheese and butter.  Add another layer of potatoes, seasoning, flour, cheese and butter.  Pour hot milk over potatoes.

Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 1/4 hours.  Remove foil, stir to combine, and bake uncovered for another 30-45 minutes.  You can top with a bit more cheese for the last 15 minutes to brown in the oven.

Filet Mignon

Quantity will depend on how many people you're serving, but buy at least one filet for each person.

Directions: 

Add 2 T of olive oil to a skillet.  Heat to very  hot, until oil is shimmering.  Sear filet 3 minutes on the first side, then 3 minutes on the second side.  Finish in a 450 degree oven until done.  Timing will depend on the thickness of the filet, and how you like it cooked.  The filets pictured were finished for 5 minutes in the oven and we thought they were perfect.  However, we like our meat medium as a rule, and some would prefer their filet slightly less done.  It's your call.

Sauteed Onions and Mushrooms

Ingredients:

2 large white onions, sliced about 1/4" thick
1 lb. sliced crimini mushrooms
2 T olive oil
2 T butter
2 T port wine
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 T Worcestershire sauce

Directions:

Add oil to skillet and heat to medium.   Add butter and melt.  Add onions and cook until half-tender.  Add mushrooms and continue to cook until vegetables have reduced by about half, and are getting good and caramelized.  Heat skillet to med-high and add liquid.  Cook and stir until sauce is reduced and vinegar smell/alcohol has burned off.