Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Making a Pasta Dinner: Demystified

Oh pasta, you are yummy.  People say we shouldn't be together too much because of your carbs, but I say, well, their probably right.  Even so, as long as you don't eat it all day every day, you should probably be fine.  I tend to go with whole wheat pasta which has a bit more nutritional value, and it also has a nutty flavor which I like, and my boyfriend tolerates. :)

What I really love about cooking pasta for dinner is that recipes aren't necessary.  I'm a recipe lovin' gal, but sometimes you just don't feel like walking back and forth, measuring things and reading a recipe.  Sometimes, you just want to wing it.  Also, it very simple.  Most pastas cook in about 6-8 minutes so if you start cooking your pasta while prepping the other ingredients, you can have dinner on the table in about 10-15 minutes.

Incorporate whatever you have a hankering for: meat, veggies, herbs, cheese.  I'll give you my basic pasta dinner formula, then the ingredients I used to make the deliciousness seen above and to the left.

1. Start with a pan on medium with about a tbsp olive oil.  Add onions and garlic and cook for about 1-2 minutes.

2. If cooking meat, add this now.  Cook most of the way through and drain for sausage/ground meats.  Cook all the way through for chicken, or use cooked chicken.

3. Start cooking pasta in pot according to package directions.  Salt the pasta, but oil isn't necessary in the pasta water.

4. Add veggies to sauce based on how long it takes to cook then, and how much you would like them cooked.  Cut vegetables the same size for routine cooking times.  Salt and pepper and add dried herbs such as thyme, oregano, and red pepper flakes.

5. Add some wine for flavor (optional step).  Red wine goes great with pasta, I typically use something dryer because that's what I like to drink.  When the pan is starting to dry out from cooking the veggies, add the wine and let simmer for a little while.

6. Add sauce at the end, tomato-based, cream, pesto, whatever suits your fancy.  Use something store bought, or make your own by simply adding in canned tomatoes, or cream/milk, or both! Some folks use cream, but due to the health factor, I just can't.  I typically add in a bit of milk at the end, depending on if I think more liquid is needed. Salt and pepper again, to taste.

7. Finish with some fresh herbs: italian parsley or basil are both great.  If you've got wee tomatoes, I suggest throwing a few in right at the end, just enough to warm them.  They add another texture to the dish and burst with flavor.

It's really that simple.  Also, remember the pasta cooking NEVER and ALWAYS.  NEVER rinse your pasta.  This makes it difficult for sauce to stick to the pasta.  In fact, if you add a little pasta water in to the sauce, it'll help it to coat the pasta, which brings me to the always.  ALWAYS toss your pasta in the sauce before serving and coat thoroughly to ensure pasta sticks to sauce.  An alternative, we'll call this ALWAYS PLAN B is to at least put a little olive oil on the pasta to keep it from sticking and serve pasta on the side.

And now, the ingredients of my deliciousness, in order of entry into the dish:
Buitoni Whole Wheat Tortellini, Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Onions, Garlic, Salt, Pepper, Mushrooms, Oregano, Thyme, Red Wine (about a cup), Sun-dried Tomato Pesto (store bought, from Whole Foods), parsley, fresh tomatoes.

Use my idea, or come up with your own.  (And by the way, making pesto couldn't be simpler.  Typical pesto is pinenuts, basil, parmesan cheese, and olive oil, but substitute any nut and herb and make your own combo.  Freeze leftovers in an icecube tray, then pop out the cubes and put them in a plastic bag.)

Happy Pasta-ing!

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Easy Peasy: Stuffed chicken, mashed cauliflower, and rosemary peas.

If you are looking for something healthy and flavorful to impress your guests, look no further than this dish.  Pretend the camera angle is different and you can see that the chicken breast is stuffed with feta and mint!  This is the kind of dish that looks like you worked a lot harder than you did, but I won't tell if you won't.

Stuffed Chicken Breast

1. Cut boneless, skinless chicken breasts in half and slice a pocket in the side.  Depending on the size of the chicken, you may want to pound it out a little to have a more even cooking time. Salt and pepper both sides of the chicken.

2. Mix together whatever cheese and herbs you have on hand.  My favorite combinations are feta and mint or basil and goat cheese, but feel free to experiment.  You can also do this step ahead and put the mixture in the freezer, wrapped in saran wrap and rolled into a tube.  This will make for much easier stuffing.

3. Stuff chicken breasts with cheese/herb mixture.  Be careful not to overstuff or cheese will spill out during cooking process.

4. Heat 2 tsps of olive oil in an oven-safe skillet to medium high on the stove.  Sear chicken on both sides because as Anne Burell says, "brown food tastes good!"

5. Place chicken in a 350 degree oven until cooked through and enjoy!

And what's better than mashed potatoes?  Oh, I know, MASHED CAULIFLOWER!  Don't knock it 'til you've tried it.  If you're hesitant, substitute in a little bit of potato: baby steps.

Mashed Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower                          4 cloves garlic, crushed/peeled
1/3 cup nonfat buttermilk*             2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp butter                                     1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp reduced fat cream cheese    Pepper to taste

1. Place cauliflower florets and garlic in a steamer basket over boiling water, cover and steam until very tender, 12-15 minutes.

2. Place cooked cauliflower/garlic in a food processor.  Add all other ingredients and process until smooth and creamy.  Enjoy!

*Note: No buttermilk?  Make "sour milk" by mixing 1 tbsp lemon juice to 1 cup of milk

Rosemary Peas

1. Cook frozen peas according to package directions and add rosemary, salt, and pepper.  Easy peasy!  (Get it...peasy?  Clever girl.)

And now you have a complete meal, from start to finish.  It can come together pretty quickly, but for more make-ahead ease, cook the cauliflower the day before and save the processing until day two.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Simplify Your Life: Slow Cooker Chicken Taco Soup!

Today, girls and boys, we are going to talk about simplification.  One of the reasons that people buy lunch during their work day or grab food on their way home is because they think they are taking the "easy" way out.  Cooking may seem daunting and time consuming but I am here to tell you that's just not so.  So listen up, and learn how to simplify...your...life!  (Thunderous clapping from a studio audience.)

First of all: the dreaded work lunch. Dreaded because the last thing you want to do after a long day at work is come home and plan for the next one.  Eww.  A salad is your simple solution, especially if the thought of cooking makes you uneasy.  Salads are stirring, no cooking necessary!

For the base of this salad, I used spinach and arugula.  Anything leafy and green could work: spring mix, lettuce, etc.  I also added wee tomatoes (grape, cherry, whatev) and shredded rotisserie chicken.  Note: this salad isn't earth-shattering: I'm a bit of a salad purist.  For most of my life, I was a basic lettuce, tomato, dressing sort of gal, but I'm now livening things up with CRAZINESS like chicken...and arugula!  (My salad growth is a slow process.)  

The key to making your super easy take-to-work lunch healthy is the dressing.  If you have a fatty, mayonnaise laden dressing, you might as well be having a burger.  Most store-bought creamy dressings (ranch, bleu cheese, thousand island) are delicious, but unhealthy, so my solution to my homemade version is to swipe out the mayo and swipe in fat free greek yogurt.  You get the same creamy texture and tang without the fat/cholesterol.  For my homemade honey mustard dressing, use equal parts honey and mustard and enough yogurt to pull it all together.  Taste and adjust as necessary.

And now...dinner.  Crock-pots are the best because the cooking is done in your absence.  Thanks, technology!  This slow cooker chicken taco soup from allrecipes.com is one of my favorites, both for simplicity and crowd-pleasing, lip-smacking deliciousness.  The only additional step is that midway through cooking,  you take the chicken out, shred it, and return it to the pot.

When I serve, I add cilantro, throw in some corn chips, and use low fat yogurt in place of sour cream.  (I'm a bit fond of yogurt, if you hadn't guessed).  For other toppings you could use cheese, avocado, or fresh onion.  This recipe makes 8 servings, so you'll be set for a few days, or can freeze and eat later.  For a vegetarian option, just leave out the chicken.

The most important thing is to use good seasoning mix to pull it all together.  Here's mine: 1 tbsp chili powder, 1/3 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, 1/3 tsp oregano, 1/2 tsp smoked paprika, 1 1/2 tsp cumin, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp black pepper.
  • Slow Cooker Chicken Taco Soup


  • 1 onion, chopped                            1 (16 ounce) can chili beans
  • 1 (15 ounce) can black beans          1 (15 ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
  • 1 (8 ounce) can tomato sauce          1 (12 fluid ounce) can or bottle beer or water
  • 2 (10 ounce) cans rotel, undrained  3 whole skinless, boneless chicken breasts
  • Seasoning Mix

  1. Place the onion, chili beans, black beans, corn, tomato sauce, beer, and diced tomatoes in a slow cooker. Add seasoning mix, and stir to blend. Lay chicken breasts on top of the mixture, pressing down slightly until just covered by the other ingredients. Set slow cooker for low heat, cover, and cook for 5 hours.
  2. Remove chicken breasts from the soup, and allow to cool long enough to be handled. Stir the shredded chicken back into the soup, and continue cooking for 2 hours. Serve with toppings as desired.