Monday, December 30, 2013

Slow Cooker Italian Sausage, Chicken & Veggie Stew

Sometimes what a fast paced life needs is just a little bit of the form of a slowcooker, of course. There is nothing like coming home from a long, busy day and opening the door to the welcoming, wafting aroma of a hearty dinner. 

In this case, chicken and sweet Italian sausage simmered with red and green bell peppers, red onion, yellow squash, eggplant, garlic, spinach, mushrooms, fresh basil and a good jarred marinara sauce into a stew-like delight that I served over gluten-free spaghetti. Kimber enjoyed hers over spaghetti squash, but you could just as easily simply serve it in bowls as a veggie-hearty Italian stew.

When it comes to slow cooking, I like to take a few extra steps to ensure good depth of flavor. It might take a little bit longer to brown the chicken and sausage before loading them into the crock, but the difference in the end is worth it. 

Think of the difference between roasted chicken and boiled chicken...THAT'S the difference...I like to call it oomph. Then, too, I deglaze the pan with the marinara sauce and a little water to get every single smidgen of goodness into the slowcooker and, eventually, into your mouth!

So here's the recipe for a vitamin-rich, hearty, colorful, e a s y one-pot wonder of a dinner. What more do you need? Oh yeah...a glass of good red wine would be very nice. 

 Slow Cooker Italian Sausage, Chicken & Veggie Stew

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 3 sweet Italian sausage links
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • granulated garlic, to taste

  • 1 small red pepper, seeded, 1/2" dice
  • 1 small green pepper, seeded, 1/2" dice
  • 1/2 large red onion, cut into slivers approx 1/4" wide
  • 1 small yellow squash, cut in half lengthwise and across into 1/4" slices
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
  • 2 cups spinach, torn
  • 1 large eggplant, cubed
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, torn
  • 2 teaspoons oregano, dried

  • 1 1/2 cups marinara sauce, your favorite store-bought brand
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste

  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch

Heat oil in a heavy skillet. Season chicken with salt, pepper and granulated garlic to taste. Brown the chicken breasts and sausages until just cooked through. Remove from pan and set aside. Leave the drippings in the skillet and set aside.

Add the veggies to a large slow cooker. Slice the chicken across the grain, slice the sausages into 1 1/2" pieces and mix into the veggies in the crock. Any juices that may have accumulated from slicing the meats, add them to the skillet.

To the skillet, add the marinara sauce to the pan juices, add water and tomato paste and stir up all the brown bits over low heat. Pour over the meats and veggies in the crock and mix gently.

Cover and turn heat to high for an hour. After the hour, turn the slow cooker down to low and cook for another 5 hours. When ready to serve, mix the water and cornstarch together and stir gently but thoroughly into the meats and veggies to thicken the sauce. Serve as is as a stew or over pasta or spaghetti squash.

One dish dinner, baby!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Red stag Reindeers - A Winter's Take On A Moscow Mule

It's winter! It's the holiday season, too. Wouldn't one of my favorite cocktails, the Moscow Mule, instead be more fittingly named a "Reindeer" at this time of year? Especially when made with Red Stag bourbon by Jim Beam? In my opinion, that would be a resounding YES!

Actually, you're going to find two variations on a Moscow Mule theme cinnamon spiced, the other hard(core) cider. Warm winter spices kiss the Cinnamon Reindeer, while apple cider notes sweeten the Hardcore Cider Reindeer. 

Both cocktails were created with a subtle, Christmas-y hint of rosemary. I think that gentle piney-ness brings idyllic images of friends around blazing logs in the center of tall firs, sharing laughs and old stories while snowflakes swirl about. Okay, maybe hot cocoa would be warmer...but humor me. Merry Christmas!

Red Stag Cinnamon Reindeer 

  •  2 oz. Red Stag by Jim Beam Spiced With Cinnamon bourbon
  • juice of 1/2 a lime
  • about 10 fresh rosemary leaves
  • 6.8 oz. bottle Fever Tree ginger beer (or other GOOD brand)
  • a fresh rosemary sprig and a tall cinnamon stick for garnish 
In a tin, muddle whiskey, lime juice and rosemary leaves gently. Add ice 3/4 of the way up the tin. Shake until the tin is frosted then double strain into a copper mug (or glass). Add fresh ice nearly to the top and fill with ginger beer. Stir gently and garnish with rosemary and a cinnamon stick.

Red Stag Hardcore Cider Reindeer 

  •  2 oz. Red Stag by Jim Beam Hardcore Cider bourbon
  • juice of 1/2 a lime
  • about 10 fresh rosemary leaves
  • 6.8 oz. bottle Fever Tree ginger beer (or other GOOD brand)
  • a fresh rosemary sprig and an apple slice for garnish (be sure to rub some lime juice on the cut surface of the apple to keep it from browning!) 
In a tin, muddle whiskey, lime juice and rosemary leaves gently. Add ice 3/4 of the way up the tin. Shake until the tin is frosted then double strain into a copper mug (or glass). Add fresh ice nearly to the top and fill with ginger beer. Stir gently and garnish with rosemary and an apple slice.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Hau'oli Makahiki Hou! - Appetizers For a Very Tiki New Year

Does the recent, refound popularity of Tiki mean we Americans are looking for a return to the exotic drinks, quirky ceramic mugs and laid back culture of the alluring, romantic Pacific Islands? Are we Pittsburghers looking for an escape to the gentle sway of both palm trees and the hips of grass-skirted maidens, to  the colorful parrot-shirted, straw-hatted, bronzed godlike men who symbolize the Tiki lifestyle? Could we be seeking tiki huts and bamboo torches to light the way to a hidden get-away far from cold, harsh winds, sleet and snow? Maybe we ARE looking for paradise. In a tiki mug. We're looking for our very own personal tropical escape....if only in our minds and for just a moment. 

Tiki underground whispers have been growing in volume over the last couple of years as new Tiki bars have popped up across the country and old ones have found new appreciation.
Listen closely, the silence might reveal the sound of distant tribal drums, lapping waves and raucous bird calls from softly swaying coconut palms above as the culture known as Tiki quietly reemerges from it's golden heydays of the 40's and 50's. And it's happening here. In Pittsburgh. 

Which brings me to two Tiki-inspired recipes I've whipped up lately for a few little Tiki get-togethers I've been lucky enough to be a part of. Kona Kahiki Tiki Ribs and Coconut Lime Chicken Sticks with a Pineapple Coconut Lime Dipping Sauce. The ribs were a creation using Kona coffee, lime zest, cinnamon, cloves, ginger and toasted almonds for a group of fellow tikiphiles one recent evening. 

The chicken was created for a weekend Mele Kalikimaka Tiki Christmas party held by another fellow tiki fan. Actually, the chicken was originally created for last summer's Jimmy Buffet tailgate and was such a hit we had to do it all over again. Why not serve this hit for New Year's, too?!

Unfortunately, the pics aren't very good because time was of the essence in getting the goodies to the parties. The photos were snapped with a cellphone in less than idealistic conditions. Who cares?! The food was fresh, hot and GOOD! Photos were a minor player. Suffice it to say, the food did stay around long enough to snap many pics anyway. What would you prefer, pretty pics or food for friends that flies off the table? Yeah, that's what I thought.

The cocktails at the recent events? Some of the best of the BEST Tiki drinks created by none other than Lucky the Painproof Man, Greta the Grass Skirt Goddess, Max Stein (no knickname that I'm privy to), Chip Homer, Adambomb, Dr. Bamboo, Mike Basista (food photographer extraordinaire - and NO, he isn't responsible for the photos here - these are mine) and many, many more Tiki talents from around the 'Burgh.

Lucky the Painproof Man

The Coconaut - by Lucky

Greta and flaming Tiki drinks!

Just in case you want to ring in the New Year with some new, different and delicious appetizers, here are the recipes. Aloha...and mahalo, friends! Oh...and Hau'oli Makahiki Hou!

Kona Kahiki Tiki Ribs

Kona Kahiki Tiki Ribs

  • 1/4 cup ground Kona coffee (I get mine at Nicholas Coffee in Market Square) - a much less expensive Hawaiian variety called Cantui Red is FABULOUS!
  • 1/4 cup toasted almonds, finely ground in the food processor - caution, don't let it go too long or you'll have almond butter!
  • 2 tablespoons demerara sugar
  • 1 teaspoon powdered ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • zest of 1 lime
  • 1 tablespoon grated fresh gingerroot 
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt

  • 1 rack babyback pork ribs, silverskin removed (check online for a method to perform this maneuver...Google's easy, but complicated to describe)

In a small bowl, mix all rub ingredients well - I mash mine together with a fork. 

Massage 1/2 of the rub into one side of the ribs, the other half on the other side of the ribs. Do this at least 4 hours before or overnight. Wrap them well in plastic wrap.

The next day, bring them to room temp and set the oven to 325 degrees. 

Take the plastic wrap off the ribs, rewrap them in heavy duty aluminum foil and seal well. Put the foil-wrapped ribs into a large roasting pan or rimmed cookie sheet that will comfortably hold the ribs. 

Cook for 3 hours or until tender, just shy of falling off the bone. Remove from oven; open the foil, exposing the ribs completely.

Raise the oven temp to 400 degrees, put the ribs back in and let 'er rip for half an hour. 

NOTE: I made 3 racks of babyback and they disappeared in a flash!

NOTE 2: Costco has absolutely GORGEOUS babybacks - SO meaty - packed 3 racks to a pack. These are the meatiest, tenderest, most wonderful babybacks I've ever had. And reasonably priced!

Coconut Lime Chicken Sticks 
with Pineapple Coconut Lime Dipping Sauce

  • 3 chicken breasts, sliced lengthwise into long, narrow sticks

  • 1/2 cup panko, breadcrumbs - I get gluten free ones at Soergels to make this GF
  • 2 limes, zested and juiced, reserve the juice
  • 1 cup coconut flakes, toasted in a 300 degree oven until golden - watch closely so it doesn't burn - cool
  • 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt

  • 1/3 cup coconut cream, Yes, the thick, gloppy stuff you use to make Pina Coladas - GREAT for making a marinade that STICKS!
  • 1/2 of the juice you reserved above
  • 1/4 cup hot sauce, Busha Browne's Pukka Sauce is what I use - get it at Reyna's in the Strip District...AMAZING stuff and perfect for this recipe!
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic

  • coconut oil, you'll need both the solid oil AND a coconut oil spray - my fave spray is from Trader Joe's and fave solid is from Costco

Mix up the breading and set aside - panko through Kosher salt.

Mix the marinade - coconut cream through granulated garlic. Reserve 1/4 cup of the marinade.  In a large bowl or large plastic zip top bag, toss the remaining marinade and chicken strips together and refrigerate for 4 hours or even overnight.

When ready to bake, turn the oven to 450 degrees. Put the breading mixture into a large bowl and a toss few strips at a time in the dredge, coating well. Set aside onto a sheet of plastic wrap or foil. 

Once the chicken is all coated, put a lump - maybe 2 T. - of coconut oil onto a large baking sheet WITH A RIM(!!!!) or 2. Put them into the oven just to melt the oil. Then lay the chicken sticks onto the oiled RIMMED baking sheets leaving room between for browning. Spray the tops with coconut oil spray to ensure browning and crisping. 

Bake for 20 minutes on one side, turn each to the other side and continue baking until crisp and browned...maybe another 10 minutes - watch carefully. Remove from oven.

Sauce: At some point during marinating or baking, make the sauce. Mix together the reserved marinade (that you DID NOT marinate the chicken in!), 1 T. white vinegar, the juice of the other lime still remaining from above, 1 small can of crushed pineapple (drained WELL...almost to dry), 1 t. granulated garlic and 1 t. salt. Taste and adjust seasonings. This is a perfect balance to the chicken.

I love to serve the sauce in a hollowed out half pineapple shell with the fresh pineapple chunks alongside and the top as a pretty platter garnish!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Gingerbread Figgy Pudding and Dark Rum Trifle

This is a first for Dinner Plan-it...the very first time a recipe is being repeated. Why?

Because it's so freaking GOOD! And, it's one of the best holiday-appropriate desserts I've posted. AND...because the Post-Gazette PG-Plate blog includes Dinner Plan-it on it's Blog Roll, I especially want my PG followers to have access to this gingery, figgy, boozy take on a traditional, very Merry Olde England-ish and positively Dickensian plum pudding.

Without further adieu, my very first rerun:

There are flavors that send me time traveling back to the Christmases of my childhood. Christmas dinners back then always started with orange sherbet in gingerale (fancy!) and ended with traditional desserts - usually more than one

Aunt Anna and Uncle Bert, PapPap, the cousins, my sister, mom and dad were all seated around the big old dining room table swapping jokes (occasionally even a slightly naughty one!) and telling stories long into the night. Sometimes we'd play cards around the same old table...Flinch, 500 Rummy, Canasta...good old-fashioned games those were. 

It's the nose-tingling scent of warm spices in the air - ginger, clove, allspice, cinnamon - that I think triggers those wonderful memories.  We always had a mincemeat pie or a plum pudding with those very same Dickensian notes - rum or brandy, dried fruits and spices. I was on a quest to recreate the flavors of Christmases of old. But with a twist. What to do, what to do.

So I decided a trifle would lighten up somewhat heavy flavors with a fluffy vanilla cream.  Fresh pears came to mind to add a little crunch and brightness. Thus the dessert came together. 

It was beautiful! Even better, it was just what I had in mind.  Gingery, spicy goodness all together with creamy mousse and lovely dark rum...and just a glimmering of zesty orange. 

Maybe it wasn't the simple, easy days of the 1950's again, but that's okay.  Back then we didn't have our kids and grandkids to make brand new memories together and to share some of the old stories with.  You know, that's what special family dinners are all about...remembering the past and making memories for the future. 

Wishing you all nothing but the sweetest of your own warm remembrances...and to making some of the best stories ever!

Gingerbread Figgy Pudding and Dark Rum Trifle

  • 2/3 of an 8"X8" pan of gingerbread, cubed - I used the recipe from "The Cake Doctor Bakes Gluten-Free" by Ann Byrn using a Hodgson Mills Yellow cake mix.  (If you are using a normal, NON-gluten-free mix, make an 8"X8" pan and make cupcakes out of the rest of the batter.) Snack on the 1/3 that's left!

  • 2 oranges, Cut the peel off with a sharp knife and make strips 3" X 1/8".  Cut the oranges in half and juice.  Reserve.
  • 1 cup dried Black Mission figs, diced
  • 1/2 cup dark rum, or more if needed, I used Kraken
  • 2 Bosc pears, cored and diced

  • 1 package French vanilla mousse mix, prepared. I used Dr. Oetker brand - gluten-free
  • 8 ounces Cool Whip Lite®, thawed

  • candied orange peel, see recipe below - use peel from above

Bake an 8" X 8" pan of gingerbread a couple of days ahead of when you want to serve the trifle. 

You're going to make the trifle the day ahead of when you want to serve it - quite nice for a more relaxed party, yes?  The morning you're making the trifle, put the diced figs into a 2 cup measuring cup.  Add the reserved orange juice and the rum.  If the rum doesn't cover the figs completely, add more until it does.  Set aside for several hours before making the trifle.

Later in the day, make the French vanilla mousse according to package directions.  Let sit for a few minutes and then gently fold the Cool Whip into the mousse.  Set aside.

Assembly:  To the bottom of a nice trifle dish or other tall, pretty bowl, make a layer of 1/2 the gingerbread cubes.  Strain the liquid from the figs - RESERVE!  Scatter half the figs over the gingerbread, drizzle half the reserved OJ and rum over the that, layer half the mousse mixture over top and repeat layers ending with mousse.  Refrigerate overnight loosely covered with foil.

Before serving, decorate the top with candied orange peel and serve in beautiful goblets.

Candied Orange Peel:

  • the orange strips from above

Bring a pot of water to a boil, add the orange strips, bring to boil again.  Boil gently 15 minutes.  Pour through a strainer and rinse while gently stirring the strips to rinse thoroughly. Set aside.

In the same pot, bring 
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 3 cups water
to a boil.  Lower the heat and simmer gently for 45 minutes to an hour.  Let cool.

Pour the orange strips through a strainer and collect the liquid in a large container.  THIS IS A BEAUTIFUL ORANGE SIMPLE SYRUP!  It would be a shame to waste it.  Use it for cocktails or to drizzle over yellow cakes or...well, just use your imagination.  Refrigerate it.

Okay, back to the candied orange spread 
  • 1 cup of sugar 
on a baking sheet.  Toss the orange peel with it until the strips are totally coated with sugar.  Let sit like that overnight. 

Use what you want for garnishing the trifle and save the rest for something else.  Wouldn't the orange simple syrup and candied orange peel make a lovely Christmas morning Bellini?  Maybe with a little cranberry juice for color?  

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jalapeno Cheese Grits and Sunnyside Eggs

This recipe and breakfast is all YOUR fault, Mr. Blanton! You can't go telling and tantalizing folks with the wonders of your Jalapeno Cheese Grits withOUT giving us the recipe. So I went ahead and came up with my own version which, I'm sure, isn't as wondrous as your own, but still damned good...I AM being humble here.

Although I didn't use instant grits - they've never crossed my doorstep and never will - this is a relatively quick and easy recipe. The most difficult thing was stirring to make them smooth and creamy. 

I cheated and used shredded cheese, though. If you're a purist, go ahead and shred the cheese yourself if you have nothing better to do in the morning than run the simultaneous risk of shredding your knuckles. (This is especially a dangerous move if you tackle the shredding chore pre-coffee!)

The colors of green and red hot sauces and the essential Bloody Mary accompaniment tells me this dish is perfect for a casual, Southern-inspired Christmas morning. HO HO HO, y'all!

Served with the perfect side...a Bloody Mary!

  Jalapeno Cheese Grits and Sunnyside Eggs
  • 3 tablespoons butter, plus 2 more to finish the dish
  • 1/2 large jalapeno chile pepper, seeds and ribs removed, finely diced
  • 1 cup yellow grits, coarse ground is my fave (wish this Yankee had access to some authentically legendary Southern grits)
  • 2 cups chicken broth, I like unsalted to control the saltiness...especially when using cheese in grits
  • 1 cup heavy cream, or half and half
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese, I used a Mexican blend cheese with cheddar, colby and hot pepper jack cheeses
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce, the GREEN variety - plus additional to garnish
  • Tabasco sauce, the CHIPOTLE variety to garnish

  • some pretty, sunnyside up fried eggs

Melt 3 T of the butter in the bottom of a deep saucepan - a deep one helps keep the bubbling grits from decorating your stovetop! 

Add the diced jalapeno and cook a minute or 2 to soften. Add the broth and the cream and bring to a boil. Slowly add the grits in a steady stream continuously whisking like mad. Use a long handled whisk to prevent being hit by the bubbling grits as they cook. Boil and stir for about a minute, then lower heat to medium low and continue whisking until they are thick and silky...maybe 15-20 minutes. Be patient, the stirring is worth it. Seriously.

Stir in the rest of the butter and incorporate completely. Add the cheese and 1 1/2 T. of the GREEN Tabasco; stir in thoroughly. Taste and add salt to taste, if needed.

Set the grits aside, fry up eggs - I like mine with a runny yolk to make the grits even better than they already are! Spoon the grits into a shallow bowl, set the sunnyside up eggs on top, add a few dollops of green Tabasco and a few of chipotle Tabasco and serve!

P.S. I'd enjoy these for dinner in a heartbeat!

NOTE: Mr. Blanton (Greg) is a kick-ass cook and BBQ genius from Georgia. And a good friend to boot.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Decadent Artichokes With Garlic Lemon Aioli

There's one vegetable I tend to think of as decadent - the multi-layered, multi-talented, humble looking, relative of the thistle plant - the artichoke. Although I have no information or research to support this quasi-historic theorem, I suspect Cleopatra lounged upon great piles of brocaded cushions while ladies-in-waiting plucked lush, green, plump-ended artichoke leaves for the Egyptian beauty's enjoyment. 

Leaf by leaf, I'm sure old Cleo slid slick leaves through strong, white teeth separating soft, creamy nut-like flesh from the fibrous bract. With a flick of her delicate wrist, over her shoulder the discards would go into the waiting hands of yet another team of agile attendants! Talk about decadent!

Maybe that's not exactly what was going on along the Nile back then, but I'm pretty sure it's pretty close. Hmmm....I wonder when hollandaise sauce was invented? Bet that would have made the leaf catching quite the messy job!

One gorgeous artichoke!

Decadent Artichokes With Garlic Lemon Aioli

  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 2 lemons, zest half of one and set aside, juice both lemons
  • 1 large egg
  • 3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

  • 2 artichokes, large, nice firm, full and green with no dry spots
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 lemon, sliced
  • 1 cup water

Prepare the artichokes by snipping the spiky ends of each leaf off with a pair of scissors. Next, carefully cut approximately 1" off the top of each artichoke and rub with a cut lemon to stop it from oxidizing. Finally, using a teaspoon or a grapefruit spoon (this works best of all!), scrape out all the tiny inner leaves and the "choke," being sure to get all the fuzzies out of the inside all the way down to the bottom.

In a saucepan just big enough to hold 2 artichokes snugly, add water and the smashed garlic cloves. Add prepared artichokes to the pot along with the lemon slices and onion slices. Bring the water to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and let steam 25 minutes to half an hour or until the tip of a knife slides into the bottom easily. 

Remove from heat, take the artichokes out of the pot and let drain and cool slightly. While the artichokes are steaming, make the aioli.

Add the 4 peeled and smashed cloves of garlic to a blender along with the egg and lemon zest. Whirl until smooth, scraping down as necessary. Through the hole in the top of the blender, add olive oil in a thin stream while the blender is running. Add the salt and then add lemon juice until the mixture is the consistency you like for dipping.

To serve this I like to plate the artichoke and pour the aioli into the center of each...that's why we hollowed out the centers! Garnish with a little tarragon or other pretty green herb like thyme or even parsley and serve!