Sunday, January 26, 2014

Summer State Of Mind In The Midst Of Winter - A Rum Drink

Okay, I'm in denial. But as cold and snowy as it is out there, I still think summer is a state of mind. 

Inspired by these adorable little mini-pineapples, a warm weather tiki-ish drink HAD to be concocted! Two kinds of rum, a little Don's Mix for tiki-ness, fresh lime, pineapple and Meyer lemon juices capped with a dash of Tiki bitters from Bittermens and I know it was least in my hand for a moment.

So what if its fluffy snow and not snow white sand? So what if it's just a wee bit chilly out there? Put a tiki drink in my hand and the snows melt, the sun shines, the seagulls squawk and the waves swoosh around my my mind it IS summer...until the REAL thing is here. And for now, that's good enough. Well, almost anyway.

Summer State Of Mind

  • 1 1/2 oz. Zaya rum
  • 1 1/2 oz. Mt. Gay rum
  • 1 oz. Don's Mix - see recipe below
  • 1/4 oz. fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 oz. fresh Meyer lemon juice
  • 1/2 oz. pineapple juice
  • 6-8 drops Bittermens Elemakule Tiki Bitters (tropical flavors of cinnamon, allspice and other island spices) - optional
  • crushed ice
Stir together both rums, Don's mix, juices and bitters together. Fill a glass, small tiki mug or hollowed out tiny pineapple with crushed ice. Pour the cocktail over the ice, garnish with colorful paper umbrellas, fancy straws, pineapple leaves...anything that makes you smile and forget the winter. Escape to the beach....aaaaaahhhhhhh.......

Don's Mix: 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks -  slightly crushed, 1 cup fresh squeezed grapefruit juice.

In a small saucepan, mix sugar and water, add cinnamon sticks and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain out cinnamon sticks. When the syrup is cool, add grapefruit juice. Store in a covered jar or bottle. Keeps 1-2 weeks stored in the fridge.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Brussels Sprouts Salad With Pecorino Romano, Dates & Hazelnuts (Inspired by Stagioni's, Pittsburgh)

This may not be the most photogenic salad in the Burgh. As salads go, it's pretty plain Jane in the glamour department. Looks kinda like coleslaw, right? Not so's far more than what it appears. This is one of those "pretty is as pretty does salads" and this one DOES!

Let me be the first to enlighten you to the delights of the Brussels Sprout Salad of Stagioni's fame, because this dish is a recreation of the one found on their menu. (Yep...THE Stagioni's in the South Side, right there on Carson Street and smack dab next to Acacia.) I have waxed poetic about the glories of the Brussels Sprout Salad at Stagioni's to friends, family and strangers near and far. Without a doubt it's the most amazingly surprisingly delicious salad in town...although it looks like a common, ordinary slaw, it's so much more than meets the eye. Your everyday slaw it ain't!

Now that we've established what it isn't, let's discuss what it IS. It's the simply the best of the best of just a few fresh ingredients tossed with a straightforward vinaigrette composed of a few more basic - but certainly not average - components. Shaved, crisp and lacy sprouts, salty Pecorino Romano, bits of sweet Medjool dates, crunchy toasted hazelnuts and a dressing of browned butter and damned good sherry vinegar.
What's the difference between average and outstanding ingredients? Pick sprouts that are tiny and sweet, choose the most exquisite sherry vinegar you can find - in this case I used a fine Spanish sherry vinegar called Veleta that I ordered from my favorite online gourmet spot, Gourmet Delights, select an excellent imported Pecorino Romano from your local cheese store and find yourself the freshest hazelnuts you can get your hands on. The best of the best..that's the difference!

Once everything is shaved, toasted, browned, diced and mixed, it's more than you ever imagined it could be. So what if it isn't the prettiest salad on the's the most delicious one in your tummy. And that's what matters! 

Brussels Sprouts Salad 
With Pecorino, Dates & Hazelnuts

  • 1 pound Brussels sprouts, bottoms trimmed, sliced very thinly on a mandoline
  • 1/2 c. Pecorino Romano, shaved
  • 1/4 c. Medjool dates, pitted and diced
  • 1/3 c. hazelnuts, toasted and skins mostly rubbed off in a kitchen towel
  • 3 T. butter, browned - NOT burned
  • 1/3 c. GOOD sherry vinegar
  • 1 1/2 t. Kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 t. sugar

Toss the shaved sprouts, cheese, dates and hazelnuts in a large bowl. In a small bowl, whisk together the browned butter, sherry vinegar, salt, pepper and sugar well.

Pour the vinaigrette over the salad, toss well. Serve.
Stand back and wait for compliments!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Asian-ish Thai-ish Chicken Lettuce Wraps With Peanut Sauce

Crazy cravings for Thai food and/or Lettuce Wraps at P. F. Chang's...and NO time to get anywhere(!)...led to today's recipe. It's an Asian fusion kinda, Thai kinda...well, I don't know which actual kinda mish mash of Asian culture the rest of the wrap could be ascribed to - all I do know is that the wraps scratched every Asian itch we had. 
Despite the fact that there are several parts to this recipe, don't be intimidated by the length of the recipe. Each component is easy to do and can be whipped up ahead of time. When you're ready for dinner, warm the filling and dinner is ready for YOU! 

Asian-ish Thai-ish Chicken Lettuce Wraps 
                                  With Peanut Sauce


  • 2 chicken breasts, minced in the food processor - don't overprocess into a paste! (method: cube still slightly frozen chicken and process in short pulses until it's a coarse, nice sized mince)
  • 2 green onions, sliced well into the green
  • 1 carrot, peeled, julienned
  • 3/4 ounce Mei Fun rice noodles, crushed
  • 1/4 c. water
  • 1/4 water chestnuts, finely chopped
  • 2 T soy sauce - or wheat free tamari if gluten is an issue
  • 1 T chili oil
  • 2 t. sesame oil 

  • 2 T. rice wine vinegar
  • 2 T. sugar
  • 2 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 t. grated fresh ginger + the juice that accumulates under the grater
  • 3 T. wheat free tamari
  • 1 t. chili oil
  • 1 t. dark sesame oil

  • 1T peanut oil


  • 6 T. shredded carrot
  • 4 T. thinly sliced green onion
  • 4 T. finely diced seedless cucumber
  • 2 very small cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 T. thinly slivered red bell pepper
  • 2 T. cilantro, minced
  • reserved marinade from above
  • 2 (or so - taste before adding more) T water


  • 3 T. lime juice
  • 2 t. fish sauce
  • 2 t. soy sauce or wheat free tamari if gluten is an issue
  • 1 t. sesame oil
  • 2 t. sugar
  • 2 t. water
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 2 T peanut butter


  • finely chopped dry roasted peanuts
  • finely chopped cilantro

  • Bibb, small Romaine or leaf lettuce leaves - you know, small and flexible lettuce!

Marinade: Make marinade for chicken of rice wine vinegar through dark sesame oil. Stir well. Set aside 2 T. of the marinade and add the minced chicken to the remaining marinade. Refrigerate a couple of hours or so - overnight even.

Filling: Heat peanut oil in skillet. When it's good and hot, chicken by batches and brown. Remove each batch to a plate as it's done. When all the chicken is done, return it - and ALL the juices - to the skillet and add water chestnuts, noodles, green onion and carrot. Add the rest of the filling ingredients, stir well and taste - adjust seasonings as necessary. 

Salad: In a medium bowl, toss together the shredded carrot, green onion, cucumber, garlic, red pepper and cilantro. Add reserved marinade mixed with water - taste the sauce and adjust as necessary. Set aside.

Sauce: Whisk the sauce ingredients well - taste & adjust. Set aside.

To serve: Plate a pile of lettuce leaves, a bowl of chicken, the shredded salad and the sauce. On a lettuce leaf, put a spoon of filling, a spoon of salad, drizzle with sauce and garnish with peanuts and cilantro. Roll and enjoy!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Chipotle Maple Bacon Roasted Chicken With Winter Veggies

You know how I do "quickies" once in a while...get ready for another that's a one dish wonder of a dinner. The recent busy days of holidays and much to do had me creating many meals that were easy to put together, a complete and nutritious meal, plus totally satisfying on top of it all.

Take today's Chipotle Maple Bacon Roasted Chicken With Winter Veggies for instance...layers of Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, whole garlic cloves, red onion wedges, chunks of chicken breast, thick sliced peppered bacon all drizzled with a glaze of real maple, chipotle and orange zest. 

This is before roasting...the pic at the top is the glazed golden goodness of after roasting.

The whole meal took minutes to assemble - especially with that handy-dandy butternut squash that comes already peeled, seeded, cubed and ready to go. An hour in the oven, and dinner was on our dining can be on yours just as quick as mine! 

(Okay. Maybe the post wasn't such a quickie after all, but making this for dinner will be!)

Chipotle Maple Bacon Roasted Chicken 
With Winter Veggies

  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breast halves, cut into 2" cubes
  • 20 Brussels sprouts (or more if you wish!), trimmed and cut in half - or quarters if they're large...I'd recommend small ones, though.
  • 2 cups butternut squash, get the already peeled, seeded and cubed butternut in the plastic containers...SO much easier!
  • 1 large red onion, peeled and cut into wedges
  • 1/2 bulb garlic, skins removed, smashed gently (about 15 cloves all together)
  • 4 slices THICK sliced PEPPERED bacon, cut across into 1/2" pieces
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to your taste

  • 3 tablespoons maple syrup, Grade B real maple syrup!
  • 1/2  teaspoons chipotle powder - use less of you'd like less heat, more if you'd like more heat
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • zest of 1 orange save the rest of the orange for a salad or for juice for something else (cocktail perhaps?)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Mix the glaze ingredients together - maple syrup, chipotle powder, granulated garlic and orange zest. Set aside.

Spray a large, shallow baking dish (a lasagna pan or large oval dish abut the same size is perfect!) with olive oil. Toss the chicken and all the veggies together and spread out in the baking dish. Add a good sprinkling of Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Scatter the bacon pieces over top and drizzle with the glaze.

Roast uncovered for about an hour or until the bacon is done and the top is nicely browned and the veggies are tender, but not overcooked. Soup's on!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Sweet & Smoky Chipotle Toffee Nuts

Waaaaay back in my misspent youth  at the Behrend campus of Penn State (when the NY state line was 15 minutes away and legal drinking age was 18), one of the tunes we danced all night to was a slightly raunchy tune that went, "Hot nuts, hot get 'em from the peanut man." Why am I bringing that up? Every time I make one of our favorite snacks, Sweet & Smoky Chipotle Toffee Nuts, I end up singing that song...much to the chagrin of those around me.

What are hot & Smoky Chipotle Toffee Nuts? Skillet-toasted, cashews, pistachio meats, hazelnuts and almonds encased in a toffee-ish coating enhanced with chipotle powder, cumin, sea salt and lime zest. A little sweet and salty, a little smoky and spicy and a little citrus zip to bring it all together into a delightful fall or winter snack.

You know, Sweet & Smoky Chipotle Toffee Nuts make a great homemade gift for very special friends, too. Isn't it nice not to need the peanut man to get hot nuts when you can do it yourself? Here's how.....

Sweet & Smoky Chipotle Toffee Nuts
  • 3 tablespoons peanut oil, or canola
  • 3/4 cup whole raw almonds
  • 3/4 cup whole cashews
  • 3/4 cup whole hazelnuts
  • 3/4 cup whole pistachio meats - buy them already shelled or enlist the kids to help
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chipotle powder
  • 1 lime, zested - save the lime and juice for a margarita to go with!
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Heat oil in a heavy skillet (cast iron) over medium-high heat.  Add the nuts and sprinkle with 1/2 cup sugar.  Saute until the almonds become golden brown and the sugar caramelizes, stirring constantly.

Remove nuts from the pan and toss in a bowl with the salt, cumin, chipotle, lime zest and remaining sugar.  Immediately spread over foil to cool.  When your nuts are cool, break them up using two forks.  Store in airtight container. 

NOTE: These go really well with a good Mexican beer or even a margarita on the rocks...that one's MY choice!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Adaptable Turkey - Or Chicken - Pot Pie Soup

"Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes." "You can't change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust your sails." The end of 2013 brought changes. Whether or not they were positive or negative depends on your half full/half empty outlook on life. As always, I chose half full. I can't say every day maintained such optimism. You see, Mark is awaiting a heart transplant.

The fact that he's here and we're waiting is a great BIG positive! We've had our ups, we've had our downs. We've learned not to take anything for granted when all you hold dear seems so transient. And so we learn to bend with the breeze and enjoy whatever fleeting moments of sunshine we encounter.

What does this all have to do with cooking, eating and recipes? Adjusting sails and bending are a major part of cooking, you know. Not literally of course, because I do as little bending as possible when cooking! (Okay...any other time, too.) Substitutions and adjustments in recipes are a day-to-day occurrence. With all that's been going on around the Dinner Plan-it house, planned meals were few and far between, we learned to catch as catch can when it came to cooking. Experience in flexibility certainly has come in handy recently!

Home...and Thanksgiving where the heart is.

We believed from the beginning of this journey that Mark would be home for Thanksgiving and that holiday came and went. Thanksgiving dinner? We packed it up and took it to the hospital, put out a nice tablecloth on top of a few bedside tables strung end-to-end and had a lovely traditional family dinner together complete with turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and lots of laughs and love. We shared our meal with nurses, doctors and staff - whomever was working the holiday and was hungry (and didn't think hospital cafeteria food cut it on Thanksgiving!). It was good. (Christmas dinner with Mark is waiting until he can actually enjoy it...we're adaptable. Christmas dinner doesn't have to be on December 25th!) 


One of the things I always do with turkey leftovers is to make a gigunda pot of soup...that was the plan this year, too. Plans change. I at least made the stock and had the foresight to freeze it! A couple of weeks went by and time to make soup opened up...but there was no leftover turkey in the house. Sail adjustment! I bought a rotisserie chicken and used the meat from that...and had a convenient take-home dinner while I was at it.  

Thus our Turkey Pot Pie Soup was adaptable...turkey stock, chicken meat. No biggie...these are the small things in life. Our soup was just as good as what was planned from the start, just a little different than our first thoughts. And so is life. Plans are just that...blueprints. Blueprints and plans change, adapt to new thoughts, ideas and needs. And we make them work!

Here's to a New Year of beautiful plans and even more wonderful realities. I can hardly wait for new changes and adventures...sweet new moments of joy. May there be many of them. Welcome 2014!

Turkey - Or Chicken - Pot Pie Soup 

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 shallots, large ones, peeled, fine dice
  • 3 stalks celery, ends cut off, cut across into 1" pieces
  • 3 large carrots, peeled, cut across into 1/2" pieces - I used 2 bright orange and 1 pretty yellow one
  • 1 1/2 pounds red potatoes, small ones, cut in half
  • 1/4 pound green beans, fresh, cut into 1 1/2" pieces - I like the small ones the French call haricots verte...mmmmm
  • 1 zucchini, about an 8" one, ends cut off, cut in half lengthwise, then cut across into 1/2" slices
  • 2 cups turkey, leftover, in big pieces
  • 1/4 cup flour, I used Jules gluten-free all-purpose flour to make this GF
  • 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
  • 2 tablespoons chicken bouillon granules, I use Better Than Boullion brand chicken base - SO much better than boullion...the name doesn't lie!
  • 1 gallon chicken stock, homemade or bought - use a GOOD low salt version if you buy it

  • 1 cup frozen peas

  • 1 pie crust  (9 inch), Roll it out onto a Silpat, bake as directed, remove from oven and cool. Break or cut into 8 pieces to top each bowl of soup with. OR bake your own favorite crust and bake on a Silpat. I made a GF crust using the classic Crisco recipe using GF flour.

In a large stockpot, melt the butter and add all the veggies. Stir and cook until they start to get tender. Add the turkey (or chicken!) and stir. Sprinkle the flour (GF to make this GF!) and poultry seasoning over the top and stir into the veggie/turkey mixture well. 

Add stock slowly, stirring until well incorporated; add the chicken base, stir well again. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, stir up from the bottom making sure the bottom isn't sticking, then cover and let cook until the veggies are completely tender. Remove from heat.

While the soup is cooking, make the crust. I use the classic Crisco recipe using Jules GF flour. Here's the recipe, use regular flour if you don't have the gluten issue to deal with!

  • 1 1/3 cups gluten-free flour blend OR regular flour if gluten isn't an issue
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 stick well-chilled Crisco
  • 1/4 cup well-chilled unsalted butter
  • 3 to 6 tablespoons ice cold water

Pulse flour and salt in the bowl of your food processor.

Add Crisco and butter to processor bowl and pulse until there are pea-sized pieces in the bowl.

Sprinkle half the water into the bowl and pulse. If it starts to come together into a ball, sprinkle another tablespoon over the top and continue until the ball forms - DON'T over process! If you still need more water, add just enough until the ball forms.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for half an hour.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Remove dough from the fridge, center it onto a Silpat or parchment paper covered baking sheet and roll it out thinly into a circle - use flour (GF if you're making a gluten-free crust) on the rolling pin to help keep the dough from sticking. Prick the dough all over with a fork and bake 10-15 minutes or until lightly browned. (The gluten-free crust may not brown well, so you may want to make an egg wash and brush it on the crust ti help brown it.) Remove from oven, let cool and break or cut into large pieces to garnish the soup and make it pot pie-ish!)

Just before serving, stir the frozen peas into the soup just to warm them through. That way you have fresh tasting, bright green peas that pop instead of being mushy.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls, garnish with pieces of pie crust and serve!

Happy New Year to one and all! May 2014 be our BEST year ever!!!!!!