“It Takes Two” Spaghetti & Meatballs with Sausage

Terrie asked me to write about our adventures in cooking in the new kitchen, what it’s like to share space with her now that our renovation makes that less difficult, and specifically this fabulous Italian meal that we made together on a recent Sunday.


But as a starting point, I want to share a little about how this came to be our house. I actually moved into this house on Sept. 30, 2006. It was amid divorce—and I’d found the house, a three-bed, two-bath ranch with a bonus “loft” room—while searching with my daughter as we looked for a place zoned for the high school she wanted to attend two years hence. This was my fifth house as an adult. I’d lived in each of the others for about five years. When I moved into this one, I was thinking it would be the shortest of all, two or three years before I figured out what I wanted to do long term and would be on the move again.

Yet here I stayed, largely because I liked Winston-Salem and when my newspaper job went away in early 2011, I didn’t feel like chasing journalism anymore. I guess I felt I had accomplished what I wanted to, and I didn’t need the disruption of uprooting to find a job in a profession that was constantly shedding jobs, especially of veteran editors like myself who were paid more. So I left journalism and wound up taking communications/marketing jobs, and through two of those, as well as graduate school for my new chosen profession (clinical mental health counseling), I stayed.

Through the growing relationship with Terrie, who moved in Thanksgiving 2016, I stayed.

We began to look for an “our house,” but everything we looked at was either too expensive or didn’t have the yard or neighborhood that would allow our pets the freedom to be outside. Once we decided this is the home where we would make our stand, the decision to fix the major things was easy. First, last spring, was a new roof. Next up was the kitchen, and, having built a house and having remodeled another house (including, principally, the kitchen), I felt confident that we would get what we both desired—more confident, perhaps, than Terrie was at first.

So now it’s done. And it is, indeed, beautiful, as you have seen in some of Terrie’s posts to date. If you missed it, you’ll want to circle back and check out the big reveal of our new kitchen. Although we have frequently been in the kitchen together (that was the point, after all, behind much of the work), this meal was the first collaborative dish we’ve made in the new kitchen. And I had the “lead” role for this meal, doing something I love to do—cook Italian food. I suggested this meal to Terrie because I knew we had a good amount of leftover Italian sausage in the refrigerator from the Sausage and Cherry Pepper Pizza we’d recently made (it has been in hot rotation since our trip to New Haven).

One of the things I’ve learned to do during my seven years total with Terrie is pick up techniques that make a meal better. I love how she can elevate a meal, and though I am sometimes timid to try some of the more advanced techniques, I don’t mind an occasional foray into the unknown (for me). So the main thing I did differently this time was to use Terrie’s immersion blender (I guess by now I should call that “our” immersion blender) to smooth the sauce. But you can get all the details below in the recipe portion. My big share is about how the new kitchen works as a shared space during a meal we prepare together. My point of view is that the day went swimmingly.

I had the primary two stations on either side of the stove as I went from prepping vegetables and sauté work on the right of the stove to prepping and cooking the sausages and meatballs on the left. All the while I was working, and it was about 90 minutes, Terrie was at her new baking station in the bistro section of the room, preparing the homemade pasta, using tools of her trade that worked better in the new space (especially a larger overhanging ledge to clamp her pasta machine, as well as the maple surface).


We didn’t get in each other’s way once! Now, I will say that as we keep working, we’ll be closer together, but the new kitchen takes care of that, too. If Terrie works the two stations on either side of the stove, I have a nice new long station on the left side of our kitchen sink, available thanks to some minor re-arranging of space in the room. With taller, roomier cabinets, we’ve been able to de-clutter the countertops, thus creating the three clearly defined workspaces, which doesn’t even include the baking station, in effect a fourth workspace.

I’m looking forward to many other dual-prepared meals, as well as my typical role of sous chef, aide and kibitzer-in-chief; I now fulfill the latter role from my perch at our new bistro table next to the baking station.

Next up in transforming this house I’ve lived in since 2006 into “our house?” The master bath remodel, on tap for a March start. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the post about us cooking together there. But trust me, we will.

We’re staying.


Les’s Italian Sauce with Sausage and Meatballs

The ingredients and steps are all listed in the PDF Terrie has attached at the end of the post, but we hope you enjoy seeing our adventure.

I’ve seen Terrie use an immersion blender on everything from soups to mac and cheese sauces. I decided to try it here, and processed my Italian sauce until smooth. I had vegetable stock on hand to help with blending the thick sauce. Then, I added the cooked meatballs and sausage to the pot and simmered until the pasta was ready.

Any kind of long pasta would be great with this sauce, but we enjoyed it on Terrie’s handmade pasta. This was her first experience with making pasta in the new baking station. The rest of this story is hers.


Terrie’s Roasted Garlic Pasta Dough

Welcome to my happy place. ❤

Of all the foods I make from scratch, handmade pasta is one of the most rewarding. As with so many things that once seemed intimidating to me, this is all about practice and repetition, and once you develop a feel for it, store-bought pasta loses its appeal. Besides the cool factor of DIY-ing this versatile food, I find it deeply therapeutic to transform flour, water and egg into a dough that can be stretched so thin and turned into noodles, all under my own hand. It’s awesome, and having a dedicated space in our new kitchen makes it even better.

I like to add fun flavors to my standard pasta dough, and this time I went for roasted garlic, blended right into the dough to complement Les’s rich Italian sauce. If you are already making your own pasta, I hope you find the roasted garlic a tasty addition. If you aren’t, or if you’re new to the process of pasta making, I encourage you to check out my posts for lemon-herb pasta or spinach-ricotta ravioli, as I offer more in-depth instruction there for making and working the dough. This time, I’m focusing mainly on the flavor and formula.

To infuse the roasted garlic into the dough, I pureed it together with egg and water, then pressed it through a small mesh strainer to keep the chunky solids from messing up the dough. I strengthened the dough by rolling it through my pasta machine, as usual, but used a chitarra for the first time to cut the dough into strands. Here’s how it went!


Putting it all together

Time for dinner! The sauce was quietly simmering on the stove, so the timing was dependent on the pasta. Fresh, handmade pasta cooks much more quickly than dried, store-bought, so it’s best to have everything you need for serving lined up and ready to go before you begin.


It takes two, Baby, me and you! ❤


Les’s Atomic Buffalo Turds

The name alone demanded that I make this appetizer when I ran across the recipe sometime while preparing for my 2015 Super Bowl party. The fact that it was a heat-fueled bite made it even better. Not only did it pair well with my favorite chili, but it also helped get the guests to leave on time.

For some reason, I didn’t make these spicy bites for the 2020 Super Bowl bash at our house (the last time we actually had people over). And last year, when it was just me and Terrie for the Pandemic Bowl, no turds.

With this year’s Super Bowl coming up, Terrie asked me to make these and share the recipe, so here goes. I wish I could credit a specific source for these, but I cannot remember where I found the recipe. It’s just an awfully good one, and very conducive to substitutions of spices and topping sauce. So many different things can work. The key is the mix of sweet to offset the intense heat. The original recipe suggested cooking these on an outdoor smoker, but this adaptation is adjusted for baking in a home oven.

Behold, atomic buffalo turds!

My 2016 batch, enough for a houseful of hungry Super Bowl guests.

Ingredients (makes 12 pieces)

6 medium size jalapeno peppers, halved and trimmed*

12 li’l smoky sausages*

3/4 brick of cream cheese

1¼ tsp. smoked paprika*

3/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (or less, if you’re scared)

6 slices of bacon, cut in half crosswise*

12 toothpicks

2 Tbsp. sweet rub seasoning*

Sweet finishing sauce*


Notes

  • Scoop out the innards of the jalapenos, removing most of the membrane and the seeds. However, if you really want heat, feel free to leave some of that membrane intact.
  • There are different brands of li’l smokies. Ideally, we’d love to find some without nitrites, but if they are made, we can’t find them. You can, however, probably substitute other kinds of normal size sausage and simply cut them down to the bite-size smoky portion.
  • There are many different types of paprika. For this batch, we used a bourbon smoked paprika we’d found online at Bourbon Barrel Foods.
  • I usually wrap the bacon raw around the jalapenos, but there is something to be said for lightly starting to cook the bacon in a skillet to render some of the fat and help it be more crispy later. But don’t cook it too long, or it will either burn or crack and fall off in the oven. Thin slices of bacon work better than thick.
  • The sweet rub seasoning can be anything you find that suits the bill; it is used to offset the heat. You can also make some your own, as we did in this case, using 3 parts of brown sugar to one part of Flatiron Pepper Co.’s dark and smoky BBQ rub. Flatiron is a very good specialty pepper company and we have enjoyed many of their products, which tend to bring the heat!
  • The finishing sauce is usually a sweet/tart, often fruit-flavored BBQ-oriented sauce. It goes on after the turds have cooked and provide a beautiful cooling note. Or, if you’re like us, you can look for a fruit-flavored-but-still-has-a-kick sauce. One year, I used a cherry-ancho BBQ sauce. For this batch, we had a raspberry-habanero sauce I’d bought from a friend who sells Pampered Chef products.

Instructions

Preheat oven to 300° F.

The first thing to do is prep the jalapenos, which involves cutting off the stems, splitting them lengthwise and then taking out the seeds and membrane. The more of either you leave inside, the more the heat your turds will pack. Wash your hands thoroughly (unless you have kitchen gloves to work with, which I don’t) when you’re done. And don’t even think of getting that itch near your eye, even after you’ve washed your hands. Trust me. Been there, done that.

Prepare the cream cheese mix by adding the paprika and cayenne. The cream cheese will turn orange. Don’t be alarmed. It helps, by the way, to let the cream cheese get room temp for easier mixing. Scoop the cream cheese to fill the half jalapenos and be relatively generous. Then place one smoky right on top of the cream cheese, lining up your jalapenos on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.

Take one of the half slices of bacon and wrap around the jalapeno, covering the smoky and cream cheese mix and securing with a toothpick on top through the bacon. Push down through the smoky and keep going until you feel resistance from the bottom of the jalapeno. Do not pierce the jalapeno if you can avoid it, as that will cause the cream cheese mix to seep out.

Sprinkle a generous portion of whatever your sweet rub mix of choice is on each smoky and place the cookie sheet in the oven. Allow about 90 minutes. The long, slow baking time simulates the process of smoking them.

When the bacon looks done, remove the turds and brush or drip your finishing sauce on top of the turds. Then, enjoy the burn!

Good to the last scorching bite.


Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce

When Terrie asks me to share a recipe for her blog, my immediate thought about the specific post is where my recipe came from. In the case of applesauce, which I make at various times throughout the year, I have no answer.

I simply cannot recall the origin of my homemade applesauce. I suspect it came about originally because of my son’s absolute love of apples; he started eating apples before he was 2, and had one daily into his high school years.

I do know my recipe took a turn when two things happened. First, somewhere along the way, I decided to do with the applesauce what I have done with mashed potatoes, which is mix varieties to increase the flavor and texture. Rather than two varieties (russet and Yukon gold), as I do with my roasted garlic mashed potatoes, I decided three was the perfect mix for apples in applesauce. Second, back about 2013, for my annual gift to self for Thanksgiving (a story unto its own), I bought a Cuisinart multi-cooker, a juiced-up version of a slow cooker. This is the same slow cooker that saved many a day for us during our recent kitchen remodel.

For applesauce, the slow cooker suffices—and it is easier than tending a cast-iron pot, my old method. As for varieties, I’m quite consistent in using Honeycrisp for sweet and Granny Smith for tart; then, the third variety is whatever strikes my fancy. Unless, that is, I can find my all-time favorite, Jonagold, which happen to be extremely tough to locate in North Carolina. This year, the third variety was Kanzi, a style of apple that basic research reveals comes from Belgium. The name means “hidden treasure,” and the apple is considered a cross between a Gala and a Braeburn. It is a mix of tangy and sweet, a fine add to the first two. All three apples are in the crispy category, which I believe makes for better applesauce.

A couple of years ago, Terrie asked me to make this for Thanksgiving as an add to the usual cranberry sauces on our table. It had more to do with the proximity of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, where applesauce is a wonderful complement to Terrie’s homemade latkes. This year it was a complete no-brainer, as Hanukkah begins the Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend.

This recipe requires some upfront labor in peeling and dicing the apples. But after that, the slow cooker does the rest and a few hours later—voilà!—a homemade applesauce that will have your dinner table guests thinking you’re a genius in the kitchen.

This recipe could not be simpler. Combine your ingredients in the slow cooker and wait nearby with a spoon.

Ingredients

Eight to nine large apples, three varieties

One small lemon, juiced

1/2 to 3/4 cup brown sugar

Vietnamese cinnamon to taste (I use about 1/2 teaspoon)


Instructions

Peel and core the apples, then cut into bite-size chunks. Add to the slow cooker. Juice the lemon over the apples and toss to prevent browning. Add the brown sugar and cinnamon and toss to coat. Turn the slow cooker to high and let it cook for four to six hours. I usually set it up at bedtime and by morning, the cooker has cooled. Mash the softened apples by hand (I use a potato masher). If you like the applesauce chunky, use a light mashing touch. Chill and enjoy.


Les’s Cranberry Sauce with Mandarin Oranges

In the 35 years I’ve been cooking Thanksgiving dinners, one of my favorite things to make is cranberry sauce. Although I have the same fondness for the jelled cranberry of Ocean Spray fame that we all grew up with (you know, the kind you used the can opener on one end and punched two holes in the other end and secretly thrilled to the sucking sound as it plopped out onto a plate), I instinctively knew early on that there had to be a better way.

Initially I began to make fresh cranberry sauce by boiling the berries in water and adding sugar. I wanted more flavor, and in 2002, I hit the jackpot with a website recipe that adapted a version originally published in Cooking Light magazine. That means my batch for Thanksgiving 2021 will be the 20th year I’ve made this delicious concoction.

It’s about sugar and apple cider (instead of water) offsetting the tart of the cranberries, and mandarin oranges adding back a different type of tart. If you make it, I guarantee you’ll be hooked. Terrie even loves it on vanilla ice cream.


Ingredients

12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries

1 cup of white sugar* (see notes)

½ cup of brown sugar

1 cup of apple cider*

½ jar of mandarin oranges*


*Notes

The original recipe called for 1½ cups of white sugar and ½ of brown sugar. I cut down the white sugar because it is plenty sweet. Either light or dark brown sugar works well.

Although I do typically use apple cider, the recipe certainly would work with water. Better yet if you can find it, as I’ve only been able to do a couple of times over the years, apple-cherry cider is the bomb!

I used half of a 23.5 ounce jar of Dole mandarin oranges; I like jars better because I feel that canned oranges have a “tell” of can flavor (coincidentally, not unlike Ocean Spray jellied cranberry sauce).


Instructions

Combine all ingredients, except Mandarin oranges, in a medium saucepan on medium heat and bring to a simmering boil over the course of 15 to 20 minutes. Turn down heat as cranberries begin to pop and work a spoon around the outside of the pot, crushing them into a sauce. When all berries have popped, remove from heat and refrigerate for an hour. Then, add the mandarin oranges to the slightly gelled sauce and refrigerate again until ready to serve.



Crunchy Cheesy “Beefaroni” (cooking kitchenless)

I used to be a sucker for interesting cookbooks. When my kids were young (and I was always looking for fun things to make that might somehow appeal to them), I bought a collection of recipes bound in a half book, half loose-leaf from a church, featuring members’ faves.

One day, I decided, based on the name and ingredients, that one of those recipes looked safe to try for the kids. It was called “crunchy cheesy beefaroni,” and basically was a home version of hamburger helper. As I recall, the recipe included ground beef, a can of tomato soup, a can of cream of mushroom soup, elbow macaroni, and lots and lots of cheese. In fact, the recipe called for two full 8-ounce blocks of cheddar, one sharp and one medium sharp. The casserole was topped by French-fried onion rings. Hence, the crunchy.

Now my kids loved this concoction, but it had an unfortunate side effect on some in the household. And the kids, who do speak their truth, did some intentional mangling of the name when they asked for it again. They asked for “crunchy cheesy fartaroni.” It was a big laugh at the time.

Time marches on. My son now lives in Budapest. My daughter is a vegan and wouldn’t touch this stuff with a ten-foot pole.

A meaty, cheesy casserole never disappoints.

I hadn’t made it in many years, but from the time I shared the story of this legendary dish with Terrie, she wanted me to go for it. This even though Terrie typically recoils at the mention of Campbell’s condensed soups, and any of the other ingredients with decidedly “GMO” and other non-organic leanings. However, in our household, I have learned that everything has a substitute, and this dish can, indeed, be made in a “clean” fashion. More than a year ago, I made it for Terrie for the first time, using some leftover shaved steak meat from another dish, as well as incorporating previously made mac and cheese. I threw in some organic mushroom soup and some organic diced tomatoes, and the 2020s version tasted great and met Terrie’s environmental and food-quality standards.

With the kitchen renovation still rendering our kitchen in a largely “not-ready-for prime time” state, we’ve been looking for some filler meals. On a recent weekend while Terrie was under the weather, I decided to take on the cooking duties and try the beefaroni again, this time with a southwest spin.

I’m pleased to say that southwest crunchy cheesy “fartaroni” worked out great. A bowl of protein, veggies and carbs with flavor, kick and comfort.


Ingredients

1 pound ground beef, 85% lean* (see notes)

1 12-ounce box of Barilla veggie pasta rotini*

Half a medium yellow onion, diced

Half a red and half a green bell pepper, diced

1 small can of chopped green chilis

1 can of Rotel diced tomatoes*

1 6-ounce can of tomato paste

½ packet Frontera skillet sauce with chipotle and lime*

8 ounces colby-jack cheese, cubed or shredded

2 ounces habanero cheddar*

Tortilla chips

Salt

Pepper

Onion powder


Ingredients for Cheese Sauce

Terrie suggested the cheese sauce, with a thin bechamel base, as a topping for the casserole because it seemed dry after its 45 minutes in the oven. This version had no soup! And who am I to argue against more cheese? Or against anything Terrie suggests in the kitchen (OK, Terrie, I can see the look on your face already).


2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup of milk*

8 ounces of sharp cheddar, cubed or shredded*

1 ounce habanero cheddar*

3 ounces cream cheese*

3 to 4 Tbsp. salsa*


Notes

  • One of Terrie’s standards is that in our household, we eat only grass-fed beef, and that’s what I used for this. Any ground meat with similar fat content would work.
  • We like the veggie pasta for a healthier option, so I used rotini, as I couldn’t find a veggie version of elbow macaroni, which was part of the original recipe. Rotini worked great and offered plenty of texture.
  • I used Rotel’s Mexican-style version with lime juice and cilantro. If you want to seriously kick up the heat in the dish, try the hot diced tomatoes or the diced tomatoes with serrano peppers.
  • The Frontera skillet sauce was the same thing I used to flavor the ground meat in my thick and hearty chili recipe. Look for it in the grocery section where you’d find packets of seasonings.
  • The habanero cheddar is a Trader Joe’s product, and it packs some major heat. You can use other cheeses to add variety to the cheese sauce; notice I only used 10 ounces total cheese, well below what the original recipe called for. The dish is plenty cheesy, even before the cheese sauce.
  • You might use a little more or a little less milk depending on your preferred thickness of cheese sauce.
  • Terrie also noted that, especially for queso-style sauces, American cheese provides a smooth base, but I had no American on hand for this meal, so I settled for what was left in the fridge, plus a little cream cheese (another Terrie suggestion). And I supplemented with another small dose of the habanero cheddar for heat.
  • Any salsa will do, but pick what you like for your heat preference, keeping in mind everything else you’ve put in the dish.

I used our multi-function slow cooker for the heavy lifting in putting together this casserole. I browned the ground beef in it, seasoning with salt and pepper and then mixing in the Frontera skillet sauce. I removed the ground beef and sauteed the onions and peppers, then returned the beef to the slow cooker, which I set to slow cook. I then added the diced tomatoes and chopped green chiles, as well as the tomato paste, using a little less than 2 chile cans of water (10 ounces) to thin the mixture.

I’d already had salted water boiling and added the rotini, draining it when it reached al dente state. I also used this period to cube up the cheese. I added the drained rotini to the slow cooker and mixed it all up.

I pre-heated our oven (which we could finally access, though the kitchen was not completely ready) to 350° F and sprayed a 9-by-13 casserole dish. Then, I doled out about half of the pasta/beef/vegetable mixture into the casserole and topped it with about half the cheese. Repeat with the rest of the mixture and cheese. Then crush up some tortilla chips until they are small and sprinkle over the entire casserole and place into the oven for 40 to 45 minutes, depending on how your oven heats.

While the casserole is baking, prepare the cheese sauce. I did this using our induction burner by creating a roux with the butter and flour. Once the roux is yellow or golden, add the milk and keep stirring. Once it thickens and appears creamier, begin blending in the cheese, stirring until smooth and adding the onion powder to offer a little seasoning. Finally, add the salsa, which should give the mixture a more orange-reddish look.

The casserole is ready when you can see the cheese bubbling; you may need to cover the casserole with foil about halfway through cooking if it appears to be dry on top. Serve in a bowl and spoon the cheese sauce over the top.

A simple cheese sauce brings a slightly dry casserole back to life. Plus, it’s more cheese!



Turning Les’s Chili into “Kitchen-less” Chili

The first dish I cooked from scratch happened in fall 1981, my first semester out of college, living in Southern California. It was sometime after the appearance of the annual TV Guide Season Preview edition. We all of a certain age remember those, right?

This thick edition featured previews of all the new shows, updates on returning shows and, seasoned amid all that, some unique features. The 1981 edition had a clip-out thing with the actor Vic Tayback, in all his “Alice” glory (rolled-up white hat, white t-shirt), sharing the recipe for Mel’s chili. Curious thing is that I didn’t watch “Alice.” Ever. But I wanted to make that chili, and it came out great. Of course, at the tender age of 22, saying something came out great means it was edible.

Vic Tayback as Mel Sharples. Gruff, but likable. And everyone loved his chili.

My chili has grown considerably in depth of ingredients and flavor over the years, and I no longer need to refer back to Mel’s recipe as I did for at least 10 years, but the baseline recipe still has some “Mel” in it. Namely, I still typically use some type of ground meat, onions, garlic, tomato paste and red kidney beans. I remember my very first modification, probably the second time I made the chili, was adding diced green peppers. Diced red pepper followed shortly after.

Soon enough, my chili became the regular main dish at the annual Gura household Super Bowl party, and I tried to do something different with it just about every year. So, among the additions (which sometimes also required deletions), were diced tomatoes (I now use Rotel hot diced tomatoes), roasted garlic, cocoa powder, various types of chili powders and seasonings rather than the packets of chili seasoning the recipe called for, canned green chiles, and diced jalapeno. A breakthrough ingredient some 15 years ago (I think I have to credit chef Steven Raichlen for this) was dark beer, as substitute for the water needed with the tomato paste. I’ve used ground bison. Used ground venison. Used smoked brisket (that might have been my best chili ever, Super Bowl party 2017).

Now comes a new challenge. Making chili without a kitchen, which became my mission one recent weekend while Terrie was taking a trip to West Virginia to buy colorful new Fiesta dishes for our soon-be-be completed kitchen. Fortunately, in our current state of kitchen-lessness, Terrie and I have two useful things for making chili. A multi-purpose slow cooker and a toaster oven; the former was the star of the day for the new batch.

I’m not going to bore you all with the details. Suffice to say, while I roasted a bulb of garlic in the toaster oven, I diced up peppers and onions and lined up the other key ingredients (Guinness Foreign Extra Stout was the beer). I browned the bison in the slow cooker and flavored it with a taco skillet sauce, then removed the bison to sauté the vegetables. Eventually, everything went back  into the slow cooker and I left it on low for 2½ hours. With the jalapeno pepper flakes and ground chipotle that I added, this chili came out, to quote Jim Carrey in Masked, “ssssmokin!”


Ingredients (makes about 8 portions)

Counter space and lighting is even worse in the dining room than in the old kitchen, but I like to get “mise en place!” Everything ready, including a frosty beer for myself.

1 pound ground bison* (notes below)

1 medium onion, diced

1/2 each green and red peppers, diced

1 medium jalapeno pepper, seeded and diced

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 bulb garlic

1 can Rotel diced tomatoes (I used the “hot” variety)*

2 small cans of chopped green chiles*

1 10-ounce can tomato paste

1 12-ounce beer*

1 packet Frontera brand taco skillet sauce (you will need less than half the packet)

2 cans red pinto beans (for this I used dark red; normally I mix dark and light red beans), drained

1-2 Tbsp. ground chipotle*

A pinch or two of dried jalapeno flakes

1 Tbsp. cocoa powder

Salt and pepper


Tools

Slow cooker and toaster oven for cooking*


Toppings/Extras

Shredded cheese*

Sour cream

Scallions

Tortilla chips


Notes

  • Bison can be substituted with ground beef, ground turkey or other favored protein; chili also works great with different kinds of stewed or smoked meats cut into small chunks.
  • Rotel makes three varieties of diced tomatoes; use whichever suits your heat preference.
  • I used Ortega’s fire-roasted, mild chopped green chiles for this batch, but any will do.
  • I like to use a dark beer; for this batch it was Guinness Foreign Extra Stout, which Terrie thought was too bold but it was the only bottle of dark beer in the “downstairs” fridge.
  • Ground chipotle can be substituted with other types of seasoning such as ancho chili powder or a seasoning packet mix or a combination of seasonings, all based on heat preference and desired flavor profile. And another thought on seasoning: add in whatever you like on a given day. Chili never comes out exactly the same, at least in our kitchen. And that’s OK.
  • If you don’t have a multipurpose slow cooker, you could brown the beef and sauté the vegetables in a fry pan, then add all other ingredients into a cast-iron pot.
  • Needless to say, garlic can be roasted in a regular oven. Unless you’re remodeling your kitchen.
  • I like to use a block of cheese rather than pre-shredded. Because this batch came out spicy, I used a Colby-jack blend. If your chili’s heat factor is low, Trader Joe’s makes a habanero pepper jack that works great and you can make your own bowl as spicy as you want.

Instructions

  1. Pre-heat toaster oven to 400° F. Cut off head of garlic bulb, drizzle with olive oil and wrap in foil. Cook 1 to 1½ hours until the bulb is soft and golden brown.
  2. Brown ground bison in multipurpose slow cooker on brown setting, adding in small batches to avoid steaming. After initial browning, add skillet sauce to coat bison, then remove from slow cooker.
  3. Add olive oil and sauté the vegetables about 5 minutes until soft and translucent.
  4. Change setting to slow cook on low, return ground bison to the slow cooker, and then add in Rotel diced tomatoes, beer and tomato paste. Add seasonings. Mix all ingredients well. If mixture appears too thin, gradually add more tomato paste; if too thick, add water.
  5. After cooking about 90 minutes, add kidney beans and heat through.

In Terrie’s new Fiesta ware, the leftover chili looks like a party in a bowl.


“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 6 – “Mix and Match Cuisine”)

We are running slightly behind schedule on the Comfort du Jour “Chopped” Challenge, as our Chef Les decided to move a gigantic metal file cabinet by himself and smashed the dickens out of his little finger (ouch!). But, after a few days of wrapping it with ice and working to stay ahead of life in general, he is off the injured list and back into the kitchen action!

Here’s a quick recap of the rules Les and I established for our clear-out-the-inventory challenge:

  • Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer.
  • The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  • Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  • Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  • Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (we do).

Here we go, with Episode No. 6!

We can always count on Nilla to “nose in” on the action!

The basket Terrie provided me for this challenge was unique in that the only protein was bacon. Now don’t get me wrong. I love bacon. God knows, I love bacon. I mean, I could never keep kosher because I love bacon so much. I like to believe it’s a forgivable sin for a Jew.

But I didn’t think I could create a good challenge meal with bacon as the star of the show. Oh, wait; that’s a different Food Network show.

My point, and I do have one, is that with bacon, polenta, chile morita seasoning (a blend we picked up from a vendor at our local farmer’s market that includes dried chile morita, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, olive oil and garlic) and a spicy, robust red blend wine, I felt I needed to add some ingredients to make a coherent meal.

So here’s what I did: I combined the concept of Italian and Mexican flavors into a red-sauce-over-polenta meal featuring chicken sausages.


Let’s talk about the red sauce first, because that was my idea from the start; I’m in my wheelhouse with sauces, especially those with an Italian feel. I sauteed onions, red bell pepper and mushrooms and threw in some diced garlic. I then transferred it all to a deep stainless pot and added a fat can of San Marzano tomatoes as well as a can of diced tomatoes. Seasonings thrown in (besides the salt and pepper that seasoned every layer of vegetables) were red pepper flakes, garlic powder, Italian seasoning blend, garlic pepper, bay leaves and about a teaspoon worth of the very smoky, flavorful chile morita. I also added two staples of my typical red sauce: about half a cup of our parm-romano blend and a pinch (well, two, actually, but they were small pinches) of sugar.

There’s a story behind one of the pictures with this post. It’s the image of me below with a very goofy smile, and if you look closely, you’ll see that in my right hand I’ve plucked a bay leaf out of the “Mexitalian” sauce. The reason I’m smiling is that Terrie and I were reliving one of the funny newspaper “headlines” I saved years ago from my former life as a journalist. It was in my then newspaper’s food section, where whoever designed the page left a very long space for a headline on a story about bay leaves. “Bay Leaves Not At All Dangerous Unless You Choke on Them.” One of the great “no s…, Sherlock” headlines of all time. I still have that headline clip in my file of crazy things that made it into print, a collection I started a couple of decades before Jay Leno ever had a late-night show.

Oh, about the sausages. You remember how we set this whole challenge series up to help us rid our refrigerators, freezers and pantry of ingredients as we prepare for our kitchen to be completely renovated? Well, one of the items I happened to find in the freezer was a package of chicken sausages flavored with sundried tomatoes. Score another one gone from the freezer!


I simmered the sauce for 90 minutes to cook it down, and about halfway through started working on the polenta. Earlier, I had cooked up some of the bacon, which I knew I’d add to the polenta. I mean, bacon goes with polenta like (fill in the metaphor of your choice). For the polenta, I followed a recipe of my favorite chef. I think you can all figure that one out. Terrie’s polenta recipe on the website goes with cajun shrimp & garlicky cheesy grits. So I had to adapt to my ingredients, and that was pretty straightforward. Out went the shredded cheddar and Frank’s RedHot Original sauce; in came parm-romano blend and chile morita seasoning. One of the things I’ve learned from my favorite cook and the too-much time we spend watching Food Network is that it helps to do things “two ways” because having flavor profiles in different parts of the same meal is pleasing to the palate.

Judge’s note: Yes, this is called “flavor echoing,” and it is a great way to achieve a composed dish. The judge (meaning Terrie) loves that Les employed this easy technique!


And that’s about it. It came together very well, as Terrie will attest in the video you can watch below.

Yes, I should have used the spoon!

Winner, winner! Mexitalian dinner!

This was another fun experience, watching Les flex his culinary muscles and put a tasty meal on the table. The flavors in his dish worked very well together, and I was pretty impressed to see how well he executed the polenta! We had leftovers from this meal and, as is always the case with tomato-based dishes, the flavors were even better the second time!



“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 4 – “Who you callin’ jerk?”)

As the start of our kitchen remodel gets closer, the competition gets tougher! Well, not really, because we are technically on the same team with shared desire for making the clear-out of cabinets and freezer less painful. This is our very own “Chopped” challenge. Thanks for playing along with us!

Before we started our challenge, we established and agreed upon the following rules for setting up each other’s baskets:

  1. Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer.
  2. The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  3. Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  4. Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  5. Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though we have way too many bags of kitty treats.

We’re tackling more pantry items and pushing each other out of our culinary comfort zones. Please use the play controls to reveal what Les is about to find inside his next mystery basket!

Nilla makes a cameo appearance during the basket reveal!

The basket ingredients in this second challenge gave me pause. After my first challenge, when I made a one-pan dish, I had potential to go casserole. Meaning another one-note dish. After more thought and a web browsing for ideas to use the sliced turkey Terrie gave me, I decided to go with two separate dishes: a jerk turkey wrap and a kugel dessert. Let me tackle the main dish first.

To start with, I love sauces. So when I think about how to use basket ingredients, I’m typically thinking about how to amp up the flavor, and turkey is perfect because it can go in so many different directions. The jerk seasoning rub in my basket was a natural. I added some peanut oil, chopped up the turkey slices and marinated for an hour before browning the previously cooked turkey in a cast-iron skillet.

A website called The Wanderlust Kitchen gave me a couple of cool ideas for dressing up my wrap. Its recipe called for a green cabbage slaw and an avocado aioli. I decided not to include a third suggested sauce, a mango chutney, because, to quote one of my mom’s favorite phrases (I love working her into these blog posts despite her cooking shortcomings), “it’s too much, Leslie.” And I ditched the ciabatta the Wanderlust site favored for a spinach wrap because I believed the bread of a ciabatta (or sub roll or similar) would absorb the flavors of the accoutrements. The green cabbage slaw included scallions, another of my basket ingredients, as well as cilantro, which gave a nice bite to the jerk turkey. The avocado aioli, meanwhile, added a tang thanks to its mayo and lime juice. I kept the recipe’s idea of a slice of gouda cheese, but to be honest, the wrap would have worked fine without it.

This was a relatively easy, healthy dinner, and I was proud to serve it up.

Jamaican Jerk Turkey Wrap with Green Cabbage Scallion Slaw and Avocado Aioli


The crunchy scallion cabbage slaw is the final touch on these easy wraps.

Once I made the decision not to try to force my basket’s egg noodles into the main dish, my heart and Jewish heritage led me to an easy choice. Kugel is a noodle dish popular on Jewish holidays, and although I didn’t exactly grow up having it frequently (if at all; did I mention my mom was most definitely not an adventurer in the kitchen?) I’ve had it enough to know how tasty it is when made well.

I decided to use Terrie’s go-to chef for Jewish foods—Tori Avey. Tori’s kugel recipe is a classic, using egg noodles (my final basket ingredient), six eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese, butter, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. I had a couple of add-ins for this dish because in one case I messed up and in another, I decided to empty our pantry of another item.

The dessert is not actually difficult to put together; you just need patience in gathering everything together and you also need to not boil the egg noodles too long; you want them softened but not fully cooked because of the hour they’ll spend in the oven becoming kugel. While adding my wet ingredients to the mixer, I realized I only had about half the sour cream called for in the recipe. And we were out of plain Greek yogurt, my first go-to as a substitute. But what’s this I found deep in the refrigerator? Why, it’s a Siggi individual Greek yogurt, coconut flavor. What a great complement for this dish!

Judge’s note: Technically, Siggi’s is skyr, which is not the same as yogurt but definitely has a texture worthy of this substitution. I am impressed with Les’s quick thinking on this!

In it goes (after first tasting it to make sure the “use by June 6” stamp hadn’t rendered it foul). The raisins, which first get a warm water bath before being added to the final mix of noodles and wet ingredients, emptied our pantry of another item. As I went to put the casserole in the oven, I had another brainstorm. We’ve had the dregs of a bag of brownie brittle from Costco on our counter for a couple of months; the recipe suggested possible toppings, and although brownie brittle wasn’t one of them, it did suggest anything crunchy (like corn flakes, which we don’t keep in our house). So I crushed what was left of the brownie brittle and sprinkled it on top, along with another dash of sugar and cinnamon. Into the oven went the kugel.

Classic Jewish Kugel


A couple of minutes later, I was disturbed by a “ding” sound. Turns out I’d warmed the butter in the microwave and forgotten to take it out and add to the wet ingredients. But not to worry. I opened the oven, poured the butter on top and used a fork to make little trenches and allow the butter to seep through. Problem solved!

This challenge overall made me happy because I used Terrie’s frequent advice to trust my instinct and feel free to substitute (as long as you are not changing ratios in recipes, especially liquid ratios). I also solved problems on the fly during the cooking process, like when I started our KitchenAid mixer and a chunk of product flew out and onto the counter, the floor and me. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, fortunately. And, most important, it didn’t affect the final product. Kugelicious!

This smelled amazing from the oven.

And now, the moment of truth; time for Terrie to judge my effort on this Chopped challenge basket!


Judge’s note: This kugel reminds me of a bread pudding, but with egg noodles rather than bread cubes. It is so delicious, I want to eat it again for breakfast!



“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 2 – “One-dish Wonder”)

So here I am, doing my first “Chopped”-like challenge for Terrie’s blog as she and I continue emptying our pantry and refrigerator in advance of kitchen remodeling and who do I wind up stealing an idea from, of all people, on my first basket? My late mom.

Now, I loved my mom dearly, but her cooking was, shall I say, ummmm, well, it fed me. Mom’s favorite dish, and she was happy to share with anyone how “good” it was, was stuffed cabbage. I endured that dish twice a year for years. Bland ground beef balls with white rice (yuck, says 10-year-old me, in recollection) inside steamed (boiled?) cabbage and mom’s secret ingredient, which I’ll share more of later because, quite frankly, I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s slow down and go back to the beginning of this challenge.

Press play on the video below to see what ingredients Les had to work with.

Chef Les seems a little hesitant about his basket ingredients.

The four mandatory ingredients in my basket (thanks, love!) were: hot Italian turkey sausages, dried cranberries, two sweet potatoes and cocktail onions. Now I have to tell you all that I am a decent cook, and I like being creative. But I’m most definitely not Terrie. Creative for me is putting things together in a way that allows me leftovers for lunch during the week.

With these ingredients, my first thought was to pair the cranberries and sweet potatoes in a sweet concoction (think Thanksgiving side or dessert), and then figure out a plan for the sausage and cocktail onions. But the morning of my day to cook, I was struck by one of the signature aspects of “Chopped.” You’re supposed to create a unified dish with the ingredients. Hot Italian sausage and a sweet side or dessert didn’t speak “unified” to me. And I’m both competitive and a stickler for detail; I wanted to get my first basket right.


Judge’s note:

Les is straying from the format a bit here, given that the previously agreed-upon rules for this Comfort du Jour challenge permitted multiple dishes made from the basket ingredients. Let’s review:

  • Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer. No sought-out, wacky ingredients for the purpose of stumping each other.
  • The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  • Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  • Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  • Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (and we do).

Is Les a bit of an overachiever? Let’s find out, as he digs into his challenge.


Like Terrie, who often studies Pinterest for ideas, I turned to an outside source—Google. I plugged in sweet potatoes and Italian sausage and came up with quite a few recipes. I settled on one that, with some creativity and tweaking, just might work. Plus, it would incorporate all four basket ingredients and even clean out a couple of extra pantry ingredients. And, extra bonus, a one-pan dish! Now that’s my kind of meal: simple.

I peeled, diced and boiled the sweet potatoes (OK, technically, I guess I used a pot and one pan). I removed the sausage from the casings and browned it, setting it aside, and then using the fat left behind to sauté the cocktail onions, some leftover sweet onion (to counterbalance the sour in those cocktail onions), red and orange bell pepper, mushrooms and garlic.


Once the veggies were done, I added back the sausage and sweet potatoes, as well as the last jar of my canned homemade salsa (the recipe called for salsa, which was convenient because it rid our pantry of another item) as well as a can of diced tomatoes (not in the recipe, but that was my intuition, and it worked well). Along the way I seasoned every layer (thanks, love, for that simple cooking instruction that I follow religiously now, thanks to you)* * , also adding cumin. The meal came together in less than an hour.

**Is it me, or does it seem that Les is flirting with the judge for bonus points?


Ah, but I left something out, didn’t I? And I don’t mean the cocktail onions, which I almost omitted (cause for being chopped in the real “Chopped”) except that Terrie reminded me when she saw the jar still in the fridge after I’d started prepping (thanks, love!). Yep, he is definitely flirting. No, the part I left out is the completion of the story about my mom. It turns out the “secret” ingredient in mom’s stuffed cabbage was raisins, which she added to the pot as her dish cooked for hours. I despised those raisins. For me, raisins were meant to be as they came out of the little boxes, not as bloated, warm, soft “things.”


By now, I imagine I’ve done enough foreshadowing that you know I rehydrated the dried cranberries from the basket and as the final touch in my one-pan dish, added them to the sausage, sweet potatoes and vegetables.


The bloated, warm, soft cranberry “things” gave the dish a fine, sweet complement to the spice of the sausage and salsa. I may still have unfortunate memories of her stuffed cabbage, but I’m not embarrassed to say, “thanks, mom.”

Even the cranberries worked their way into Les’s dish!

Press play on the video below to see how Chef Les finished in his Comfort du Jour “Chopped” challenge.



“Hot Italian Sausage-Sweet Potato Slop”

The one-dish slop was not a flop, and that means we are two-for-two!
As the kitchen remodel gets closer, the basket ingredients are bound to get weirder.
Stay tuned for more frolicking fun, and another “Chopped” challenge!


Coffee-rubbed Grilled Tri-tip Steak

My husband, Les, has stepped up into the role of “kitchen boss” as I convalesce after slicing my finger. He is especially good on the grill, and sharing one of our fabulous recent meals. I hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

Terrie

There are few things I like better than cooking and, of course, eating, a perfectly seared steak. Medium rare.

Strangely, loving steak didn’t come easily for me. My mom, forced to stretch a budget in our lower middle class household, didn’t get the best cuts. I remember endlessly chewing and chewing and chewing, dawdling through meals while eventually my two older sisters and parents drifted away into the “den” (which in actuality was a hallway) to watch TV. I would wait until I knew they were occupied and sneak over to drop my gray meat and leftover canned vegetables into the trash. Then immediately volunteer to take the trash out to the incinerator chute down the hallway of our apartment building in Queens, N.Y.

Eventually, two things changed.

First, I hit puberty and suddenly couldn’t get enough of steak. Second, about this same time, I recall my father started to speak out for getting his steak more rare. In particular, my mom started to buy London broil, a lovely cut of meat, which she cooked on the electric broiler, a rare, new “toy” in our household, slathering on some Open Pit barbecue sauce during the process. Best of all, my mom learned to take the meat off the broiler, cut medium rare slices for my father and me (by then my two sisters were both out of the house; the oldest married and the other in college) and then put the meat back on the grill to get it more done for herself.

I’ve never stopped loving a good cut of steak. As a young adult, I became adept at grilling, and London broil was always my favorite, even over a good New York strip. Until a couple of years ago, that is. Terrie and I were in Whole Foods one day and there was no London broil. The butcher suggested we try a tri-tip. “A what?” I recall saying. He pointed to a triangular-shaped piece of meat about 2 inches thick, which except for its shape looked similar to a London broil. The tri-tip comes from the point end of a sirloin, while London broil typically comes from the top or bottom round of the cow. The tri-tip is thus a better cut of meat, more marbled and flavorful.

Terrie suggested using her coffee spice rub, which is interesting because coffee is one of three things I can’t abide (the others being goat cheese and malted milk). But as part of a spice rub, I honestly don’t taste the “coffee” part, and it makes a terrific flavor profile for cooking steaks of any sort. It has become our favorite preparation for tri-tip, and Terrie’s recipe for the rub is included below.

This cut of beef slices easily, and it stays juicy inside with lots of spice and flavor on the crust.

I can’t tell you how easily and perfectly this meat sears. Not only is it delicious fresh off the grill, but the leftovers slice beautifully thin for sandwiches. Tri-tip, provolone, onion and lettuce on one of Terrie’s sourdough breads for lunch? Yes, please, as my better half likes to say.


Instructions

  1. Brush or spray olive oil onto the surface of the tri-tip steak, and rub a generous amount (about 1 tablespoon per pound of meat) all over it.
  2. Let the dry rub sit for a few hours in the fridge, taking the meat out about an hour before grilling time.
  3. Put the gas grill on high (550 to 600° F) and sear the meat on each side for 45 seconds to a minute depending on the thickness, before turning down the temp to about 350° F.
  4. Cook the tri-tip about 7 to 10 minutes on each side, using either a meat thermometer to hit 140° F internally for medium rare, or simply using your eye if you care to slice into it while it’s on the grill.

Reminder: the meat will continue to cook after being removed from the grill, so err on the “rare” side regardless of how you like your meat, as the idea is to let it rest for 5 minutes before slicing.

Slice tri-tip thinly, against the grain of the meat, taking note that the direction changes slightly about halfway into it.

Nilla knows delicious meat when she smells it!

Terrie’s Coffee Rub

Adapted from Bobby Flay’s rub recipe

Ingredients

1/4 cup very finely ground dark roast coffee* (see notes)

1/4 cup ancho chile powder*

2 Tbsp. Spanish sweet paprika

2 Tbsp. brown sugar

1 Tbsp. mustard seeds

1 Tbsp. kosher salt

1 Tbsp. ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. coriander seeds

1 Tbsp. dried oregano

2 tsp. ground ginger

2 tsp. ground cayenne* (adjust to taste)


*Notes

Use a burr coffee grinder on the finest setting to produce the best ground coffee for this recipe. Alternatively, use purchased espresso powder or a good quality instant coffee, such as Starbucks Via brand.

Ancho chile is a smoked, dried poblano chile. It has less heat than chipotle, and is more “fruity” in flavor. Seek out ancho chile powder in a specialty store or online, or substitute a lesser amount of ground chipotle. I don’t recommend substituting a purchased, generically labeled “chili powder,” as these products usually also contain a lot of salt and other spices.

Cayenne packs a fair amount of heat, so adjust the amount to your match your tolerance. If you really like it hot, substitute ground chiles de arbol.


Instructions

Place mustard and coriander seeds in a spice grinder and pulse until finely ground, but not quite powdery. Combine with all other rub ingredients and keep in a sealed jar for up to six months.

Use about 1 Tbsp. per pound of meat as a grilling rub.