The Most Important Meal

One of the most important dishes I made on Thanksgiving Day had nothing to do with the people at our table, and everything to do with one of the furry members of our family. Our senior husky mix, Nilla, has begun playing a new mealtime game with us, called “maybe I’ll eat and maybe I won’t.” We have been trying since September to figure out the rules of this new game, and for the most part, I believe we are winning. But she changes the rules just often enough to keep us humble.

Amid the excitement for our traditional turkey-and-sides meal, my husband and I were also celebrating Nilla’s 14th birthday, and this very good dog deserved a special treat of her very own, complete with ground turkey, sweet potatoes, green beans, carrots and peas. So yes, right in the middle of Thanksgiving day, I stopped everything else I was doing and made this for her. She is not spoiled, mind you, just really loved.

I even mixed in some chopped dried cranberries. 🙂

Nilla entered Les’s life with a heartbreaking and all-too-common backstory. When he and his then-teenage daughter fell in love with this little fluff ball at the county shelter, the workers explained that the blonde pup and her 11 littermates had been abandoned in a box beside the road. I hope to never encounter a person who is so heartless to do such a thing, but in Nilla’s case, there is obviously a happy ending (for her siblings, too, as Nilla was one of the last pups adopted).

Look at those HUGE puppy paws! ❤

I first met this girl in 2015, when my friendship with Les had developed to the point of me visiting him in his home, and it didn’t take long for Nilla to capture my heart, too. Her daddy would casually mention that “Terrie’s going to be coming over,” and Nilla would stand watch at the front door. It was obvious that she was as happy to see me as her daddy was.

Nilla, teaching me how to give “high paw.”

Nilla is the perfect dog. She doesn’t jump or chew or dig or bark incessantly as some dogs do. She doesn’t roll around in stinky things and she hardly ever needs to be brushed. She is gentle, sweet and playful. I inform Les regularly that he will never again have a dog with so many desirable traits. Some of that can be credited to her training— Les started Nilla with a pro trainer when she was still a pup— but the rest is just her. She has an underlying personality that can best be described as “chill,” and we bonded even more when my cats and I moved in at Thanksgiving 2016. Nilla has been a fixture in the kitchen, always waiting, hoping, expecting a bite of whatever vegetable her mommy has on the cutting board.

She still loves her zucchini!

When Nilla was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease in the summer of 2020, we were told that the average survival time is two years, which we figured would have been great for a large-breed dog that was already approaching 12.

Cushing’s is an adrenal dysfunction, caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland, and though Nilla did not exhibit any of the typical early clinical signs— excessive thirst and appetite, pot belly or panting— she did show signs of heavy anxiety that resulted from overproduction of cortisol. That anxiety, combined with some funky blood work, led to her diagnosis. Cushing’s can’t be cured, and treatment doesn’t slow down or stop its progression, but it does help relieve some of the symptoms. It has been tough for us to see our happy-go-lucky girl in various states of restlessness. She has always been afraid of thunder and fireworks but now, even an innocent sneeze by one of us will send her scrambling in sheer panic. We adjust.

Two and a half years later, she’s slowing down but still with us, and we know that love has a whole lot to do with that.  

Our St. Patty’s Day family outing to her favorite dog-friendly brewpub.

I’ve shared here many times the wide array of vegetables Nilla has enjoyed, and I have always been thrilled to watch her catch bites of them in mid-air. Until recently, that is. Her eyesight doesn’t seem to be what it once was, and her timing and depth perception are not as sharp, either. At her last dental cleaning, she lost a couple of teeth and doesn’t enjoy the hard, crunchy vegetables that were once her favorites, but she sure does love them cooked up in a mix with fresh meat and grains, and I am more than happy to oblige.

What can you do for the very best dog, but your very best in return? As Nilla’s appetite has become less predictable, I’ve been working to develop some new culinary creations just for her. Whatever it takes to entice her, make her hungry for more, give her energy to carry on, that’s what I’ll do. The most important meal is the one she will eat. And so far, so good!

All of the blends I’ve made for Nilla have started with lean ground turkey, chicken or (occasionally) beef. I gently brown the meat with a little bit of olive oil— skip the seasoning— and then I toss in a variety of chopped or shredded vegetables, plus a little bit of water to simmer and steam it until the veggies are nice and soft. She loves it.

Those eyelashes!

If you’re going to cook for your dog, here are a few recommendations: 

Check with your vet

This is the most important thing, even if you think you know what foods are OK for your dog. Some conditions or medications may not play nice with certain foods and you need that insight from your dog’s veterinarian. Also, note that a cup of fresh, homemade food may not have the same caloric and nutrition value as a cup of dry dog food. Generally, we mix the two to ensure she is getting enough of everything her body needs to be strong. Nilla’s vet, known at our house simply as Dr. Eric, is all in favor of the special effort we are making for her, and he sees the benefit at each follow-up visit.

Make balanced foods

A good diet for a dog consists of more than just protein, so aim to include fresh vegetables and fruits, but steer clear of the things that are universally bad for dogs, such as onions, chocolate, grapes and anything with a lot of seeds. This has been a little bit tricky for me, because Nilla has begun to turn her nose up at some of the vegetables she used to love. She’s all done with raw broccoli and cabbage, but cooked is acceptable, and mild-flavored potatoes and green beans are still favorites. She also enjoys apples, as long as they aren’t tart and the pieces are small. Grains help provide a balance as well, and Nilla has especially been enjoying cooked oats and rice mixed in with her food.

Keep it easy on the belly

Dogs are lactose-sensitive, so steer clear of dairy ingredients as much as possible. A bite of cheese here and there is probably OK, but keep it few and far between. And table scraps that include a lot of fat or bones should be completely off limits. Many years ago, I had a dog who developed pancreatitis after finding fat scraps in the kitchen trash, and he wound up in the doggy hospital for several days. Trust me, you don’t want to go there. Oh, and skip the salt because it’s murder on their kidneys.

Scrambled egg for the win!

When all else fails at mealtime, we have found that a warm, a scrambled egg does wonders to spur our girl on to eat. It’s also quick to prepare and easy to blend with the other things in her bowl. Eggs are easy to digest and metabolize, and I believe Nilla’s favorite thing about them is that we serve them to her warm.

Cook small batches or freeze the extra

Depending on how much homemade food your dog is eating, you may want to keep your batches small so the food stays fresh and nutritious. If you need to make a larger batch to save time later, divide it into bags or containers for the freezer and thaw when you’re ready for it. 

Make a healthy broth for your pets

If you plan to cook rice or potatoes in broth, do not use store-bought varieties because every one of them contains onions! Make your own simple broth by simmering chicken or beef bones, and let them reduce to the concentration you need. It’s OK to add carrots to the pot, but skip onions, garlic, salt and spices. Skim off excess fats and strain out the solids before using it in your pet’s food.

Miss Nilla is a grateful dog, and we feel so lucky to be her pet parents. If all of this seems like a lot of effort for a dog, I’ll leave you with this thought: 

One day, far sooner than we’d choose, this beautiful girl will go to the Rainbow Bridge. And on that day, I will not regret the effort. ❤

Cooking Fresh Food for Dogs

Consult with your pet's veterinarian before making any homemade food recipe.


  • 2 tsp. extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • 1 pound lean ground meat, such as turkey, chicken, beef or lamb
  • 2 cups fresh chopped vegetables, including any combination of carrots, green beans, sweet potatoes, broccoli, Yukon potatoes, cabbage or green peas
  • Up to 1 cup fresh chopped apples (excluding seeds)
  • 1 Tbsp. milled flax seeds, optional but so good for them (you can buy pre-milled or use a grinder or mortar and pestle)
  • Water or SAFE broth for simmering (make your own or use one formulated for pets; NO ONIONS)


  1. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add ground meat, using a utensil to break it up into very fine bits as it cooks.
  2. When meat loses its pink color, add vegetables, beginning with firm ones that need more time to soften. Reduce heat and cover the pan, allowing the steam to soften the veggies.
  3. Add softer veggies and apples. Add water or onion-free broth as needed to keep the steam going. Cover and steam until ingredients are softened to your best friend’s liking.
  4. Remove from heat and sprinkle flax meal all over the mixture. Let it cool before serving to your pet, either alone or combined with their other dog food. Promptly refrigerate extra food or divide and freeze it for later.

The Problem with Recipes.

I can almost feel all the eyebrows lifting out there, and I’m sure it sounds contradictory coming from someone who has posted—ahem, 257 recipes in the past two years. But here goes, anyway. I don’t like recipes, and they are not my friend. Whew, that was tough to admit. Despite the immense collection of cookbooks in my kitchen, home office, attic storage, garage and the new one that I just bought two weeks ago, I don’t like recipes. The reasons are many, but I have boiled it down to a few, and they all point to the same issue: recipes hardly ever teach you anything, and they can even set you up to fail. Kind of like the way GPS can get you more lost than you’ve ever been.

When I clicked “publish” on my first Comfort du Jour post—exactly two years ago today—it was my mission to share ideas for elevating classic comfort foods and demystifying more extravagant dishes to make them more approachable for the home cook. My hope, of course, is that cooks of every skill level will find something interesting on my blog, something worth trying themselves and perhaps with a few changes to make one of my dishes their own. Inspiration—that’s my goal. Short of having you literally join me in the kitchen, however, some of my ideas might leave you with more questions than answers. And that’s the problem with recipes.

Like almost everyone I know, I have successes and failures in the kitchen, and some of them are spectacular on both ends of that scale. In my opinion, it is better to work toward developing one’s own skills in the kitchen rather than following recipes, because understanding techniques will carry you through any new dish. As I embark on my third year of food blogging, my new (or, I should say, additional) goal will be to help explain how I have honed my cooking skills so that learning or trying new dishes feels natural and fun.

With that in mind, I offer what I consider to be the top 5 problems with recipes. Rebuttals are welcome, of course, as are your own recipe peeves and observations. Here we go!

5. Recipes can be too vague or too detailed

Have you ever tried to follow a recipe that seems to assume that you graduated from culinary school? This happens to me when I look at many older cookbooks, and even some of the cookie recipes left behind by my own dear grandmother. What if I didn’t know, for example, that “mix all ingredients together” really means to cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy, then add the eggs one at a time, blending after each, then stir in the vanilla and then stir in the flour? When my Gram passed away in 2019, I was startled and saddened to realize that I only had four of her recipe cards in my collection—four! But my panic quickly turned to relief when it dawned on me that I have a whole backlog of memories to guide me. During all the afternoons I spent in her kitchen, she taught me her techniques, and that is worth a million recipes.

The rest of my grandmother’s recipes are tucked away in my memory.

On the flip side of that, too much detail in a recipe can be just as bad as not enough. If the author of the recipe assumes that you have zero cooking abilities, you may have trouble following all those words. And if you should happen to need to double or half a recipe like that? Ugh, forget it. I have literally wrecked the simplest of recipes because the wordiness made me lose my place or second-guess my own instincts. It is embarrassing to admit, but I lost my mind a little bit because I couldn’t figure out when to add the toasted pecans to a carrot cake in the Bobby Flay book. The recipe literally did not address it, but I should not have needed it in writing. When I lose my confidence in the kitchen, I also lose my joy. Don’t let this happen to you! 🙂

4. Ingredient lists that are too long or don’t offer substitution ideas  

A dish needs what it needs, but one that uses a miniscule amount of every condiment and spice in my kitchen isn’t going to happen. This is exactly why I have never made pad Thai—a fantastic dish, but 25 ingredients is too darn many for me! And if you can’t find two or three of the ingredients, does that mean you can’t make the dish? There is a substitute for almost everything in the world of food, and the more unusual the ingredients, the more likely you’ll need to know what those substitutes are. This is also true for those with food allergies or sensitivities; understanding how a substitute ingredient will behave in the recipe is as important as knowing how it will taste. Gluten-free flour cannot be substituted evenly for wheat flour in a yeast bread, but it may work fine in a pancake recipe. The protein in dairy milk might play a role that can’t be handled by almond or cashew milk. Aquafaba, the liquid in a can of chickpeas, can be a vegan substitute for eggs in one dish (if the eggs are primarily a binder) but you obviously cannot scramble it up into an omelet. A perfect recipe would describe how to adjust for substitutions but spelling out every possibility will lead back to the problem of the recipe being too detailed.

3. Recipes with steps that are based on time

I recently bought the book, Beat Bobby Flay, because my husband and I are somewhat addicted to watching the competition show on Food Network. One of the first recipes I checked out made me shake my head because it described cooking a mixture for 5 minutes, adding an ingredient and cooking 2 more minutes, adding something else and stirring constantly for 2 minutes. And I wondered to myself, how does Bobby know how long it will take on my stove, with my pans? There are so many variables from one cook to the next—everything from your stove to your cookware to the ambient temperature in your kitchen can shift the cook time on a recipe. Even the various burners on the same stove will perform differently, so unless the recipe also describes the visual cues to watch for, don’t trust the time marks. Bobby Flay is a very accomplished chef (and one of my favorites), so this is not a slam against him—just a reminder that knowing how to cook is a prerequisite for using recipes. The clock has very little to do with it, except for planning what time to get started.

Speaking of problems with cookbook recipes, who can spot the major problem with this one?

2. Recipes that sound too easy to be true

With the advent of social media came the prevalence of recipes that have not been tested prior to publishing, and there seems to be a newfound fascination with recipes using the least number of ingredients (which is a joke, given that each “ingredient” has its own lengthy ingredient list). I’ve seen some flat-out crazy things on Pinterest, and some TikTok users get their kicks by posting impossible recipes—I suppose just to see if people will click on it so they can go viral. If you honestly believe that self-rising flour and mashed sweet potatoes will produce the fluffiest dinner rolls you’ve ever seen, and that they can be baked in the microwave, then you might also be interested in buying some oceanfront property in Kansas. Not to discourage experimenting, of course, but trust your judgment. If a recipe smells like a scam, it probably is, and I hate wasting food.

1. Recipes are made for the author’s taste, not yours

If you don’t believe this one, just look at the online “reviews” for any recipe. It won’t take more than a minute for you to find a review that gripes that the dish is too salty, followed immediately by another review that says the dish has no flavor and needs more salt. This is not a problem with recipes as much as it is a reminder that taste is subjective, and the more you are able to understand and adjust a recipe on your own, the happier you’ll be with the finished dish.

So let’s hear it. What are your thoughts on recipes, and what makes them better or worse for you?

And speaking of recipes, get ready for some more inspiration from me, including—you guessed it—some new dishes I’ve been cooking up in the Comfort du Jour kitchen. I’ll do my best to avoid these common recipe pitfalls as I describe the techniques behind my creations.

Sweet Potato Chew Treats

As parents everywhere are putting the finishing touches on Christmas gifts and treats for their children, we have a similar situation at our house, but with a slight difference. Our children have paws and whiskers.

Nilla, guarding the stockings in 2019.

This will be the sixth year that my husband, Les, and I will stuff stockings for our pets. On Christmas morning, there will be plenty of joyful ruckus in our living room, as they will enjoy new toys, a few packaged treats and some extra special surprises.

For our spoiled cat, Taz, the big surprise will be a new, tall cat tree. Her old one, which Les bought to help her feel at home when the cats and I were preparing to move into his (now our) house, had seen better days, and we moved it to the garage toward the end of summer. Like any cat, Taz likes to be on top of things, and I predict that she will quickly claim the tree’s top perch as her new favorite spot, just as she did with the last tree.

Little Miss Spoiled. ❤

And sweet Nilla, our 13-year-old husky mix, has already been looking forward to opening her stocking—so much so, that she has excitedly brought the stocking to us a few times since we unpacked the Christmas decorations. It’s empty, but she remembers Christmas mornings past, and no wonder, with these tasty, chewy, totally healthy treats tucked inside.

It’s Nilla’s Christmas dreams come true. 🙂

Nilla’s love for vegetables is not limited to sweet potatoes. She gives equal time to green beans, red bell peppers, butternut squash, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, raw asparagus, peas, carrots and (her all-time favorite) spaghetti squash. But these sweet potato chews have become a bit of a tradition for us at Christmas, and I cannot refuse this sweet girl!

If you also have a very good dog at home, here is a treat that is easy to make and delightful to share with your furry loved one. All you need is a couple of good-sized sweet potatoes, a sheet pan and an oven. Cut the sweet potatoes into thin slices—lengthwise if you have a large dog and crosswise into chips for a small dog—and roast them at a low temperature until they are somewhat dehydrated and chewy. So easy! Dogs love the flavor and texture of these one-ingredient treats, and the vitamins and fiber are good for their bellies.

Please consult your veterinarian if your dog has dietary issues and remember that although your dog will want to eat the whole batch in one sitting, it’s best to share these sweet potato chews as treats rather than a replacement for their regular feedings.


Fresh sweet potatoes—that’s it!

Olive oil spray and ground cinnamon (optional)


Preheat oven to 300° F, with two oven racks in the near-center positions. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Scrub the sweet potatoes (peeling is not necessary) and slice them into ¼” thick pieces. Arrange the slices in a single layer on the parchment-lined sheets. If you wish, spray the slices very lightly with olive oil spray and sprinkle a touch of ground cinnamon onto one side of the slices. Do not use salt or sugar, as both are not great for dogs.

Roast for about two hours, turning the sweet potato slices over halfway through roasting time. When the potatoes reach a chewy, firm texture, remove them from the oven and allow them to cool completely.

Note that the sweet potatoes will continue to dry and harden a bit after removal from the oven, so you don’t want to roast them until they are fully dry.

Keep the cooled sweet potatoes in an airtight container in the fridge. For Nilla’s stocking, I like to wrap up a handful in a piece of plain parchment paper. Here’s a sneak peak at what Christmas will be at our house.

Merry Christmas!

“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 7 – “Kielbasa City, here we come!”)

Our quest to knock down the inventory of our pantry, fridge and freezer has been a big one, and Chef Les has given me one final basket to conquer before the big kitchen remodel begins. I have to hurry this up, because our contractor, Matt, is on his way over with his crew, ready to start tearing out our existing cabinets (I’m not kidding, he really is)!

Before we started our challenge, Les and I 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 Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (we do).

I made myself a dry martini to take the edge off, because Les was wearing a mischievous grin when he assembled my seventh mystery basket. Here we go!

We’re going to need a bigger bar.

Yes, I was cringing on that last ingredient. Les and I have joked about that massive package of frozen kielbasa ever since this challenge began, but neither of us had dared put it in the other’s basket until now. We love smoked sausage of any kind, so that wasn’t a problem for either of us. The issue is that this was a 3pound package, and that’s a lot of kielbasa for two people to consume in a short period of time.

After this meal was finished and judged, it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t kielbasa at all; a closer look at the package revealed it as “mesquite smoked sausage,” but I was lured by the brand name, Kiolbossa, which is apparently the name of the family that owns the company. This had both of us quite perplexed (especially my ex-journalist husband, for whom facts still matter), so I did a quick search to see if we were correct in calling this sausage “kielbasa.” Based on this article on The Spruce Eats, kielbasa is the same as sausage, as least in the Polish language. As luck (or genes) would have it, Les is half Polish, so we are calling this one correct. Whew!

I bought the kielbasa at Costco in March 2020, on the same visit as the 7-pound bag of quinoa, three towers of canned tuna, that huge bag of mixed lentils, two cases of chicken and veggie broth, and umpteen cans of black beans. If we had a COVID apocalypse, at least we would not starve. In the heat of the moment, I did not have the presence of mind to downsize the sausage haul into smaller packages; I just popped the whole thing into the freezer. Later, when it became apparent that we would not perish in a pandemic version of The Hunger Games, we lamented the stockpiling, and the sausage became a bit of a punchline at our house. There are plenty of ways to cook and enjoy smoked sausage; my main concern is how to use so much of it, and I knew immediately that I would have to make multiple dishes to accomplish that.

Only one of the dishes I had in mind would use all four of the basket ingredients, and that’s what I’ll be presenting to Les for judging. To challenge myself further, I decided that I would try to prepare said dish without using our stove (might as well get used to it, given that our kitchen remodel will be underway any minute now). Our slow cooker, which Les purchased a few years before we met, is a serious workhorse —way better than my old Crock Pot—and the only reason we don’t use it more often is that I work from home, and I find cooking in the background is usually easy to manage during the day. Besides the usual high-low-warm functions of any other slow cooker, this one also has a roasting option and a setting to brown food, and I expect that it will come in super handy as we navigate the fall cooking season without a stove or oven.

Under normal circumstances, the slow cooker has lived on a utility rack in the garage, right next to the “downstairs” fridge (check out my post for baby back ribs with root beer bbq glaze to understand that inside joke). After several months without use, it needed some attention. As I was washing the accumulated dust from the slow cooker, it occurred to me how similar this scene was to some of the miserable, cringe-worthy dating experiences I’d had before things got serious with Les:

 “Hey there, Gorgeous! I know it’s been a long time—since, when? –Super Bowl two years ago, I guess. Wow, we’ve had some good times, haven’t we? By the way, you look great! So anyway, my circumstances have changed and I’m gonna be without a kitchen for a bit and I wondered if you’re free for, oh, maybe the next six weeks or so? I was thinking we could get together and make some new memories. I’ll make it up to you when the kitchen is done. Look, I’m putting in a tall pantry cabinet so you won’t have to live in the garage anymore. You up for some fun? Aw, you’re the best!”

Thankfully, appliances don’t have feelings.

Let’s review these mystery basket ingredients again. First of all, there were (count ‘em) 10 fat links of kielbasa in that package, and there’s no way all of them can go into one dish. I wanted to find creative ways to use the kielbasa in multiple applications, and for this meal, I used three of the links—two were processed with the large shredder blade of my food processor, and the third was cut into chunks to be added to the final dish.

The mushrooms and lasagna noodles were easy, because I planned to make a variation of a stroganoff, and the lasagna only needed to be cut into smaller pieces.

The jar of maple-bourbon braising sauce has been in the back of a cabinet for a couple of years, and I always imagined it might be useful for doing some kind of roast in the slow cooker, but it didn’t have much flavor on its own (neither maple nor bourbon). With mostly salt and vinegar flavors to its credit, I decided to “beef” it up (so to speak) with some shredded kielbasa. This would add much-needed flavor to the sauce and also allow me to use the sausage in more than one way.

I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story. It would be most unexpected for you to find yourself in possession of these exact ingredients, so I didn’t keep up with how much of every ingredient I used. But I hope you enjoy the story.

I used the “brown” setting to render the residual fat from about half of the shredded smoked kielbasa, and used the other side of the slow cooker to saute up the onions that would make their way into the meatball mixture with the other half of it. Along with those ingredients, I rounded up the usual suspects for any meatball mixture—a panko panade (paste made with milk), a large egg, a few shakes of dried oregano, black pepper and a small handful of chopped fresh parsley.

I did a quick browning on the sliced cremini mushrooms—again, right in the slow cooker. And then I added the maple-bourbon braising sauce with a few spoons of beef base and some brown sugar to amp up the flavor.

The kielbasa on its own had a pretty salty flavor, so I was reluctant to season the mixture as I normally would, and I couldn’t very well just taste the raw meat mixture to know how much salt was right. My solution was to cook two tiny meatballs and give them a taste. Definitely salty enough on their own.

I was kicking myself a little bit because I could have easily browned the meatballs right there in the slow cooker, but I had already dumped the jarred sauce into it. In the heat of the moment, I am not prone to make the best decisions (please refer to above-referenced purchase of the sausage, and the imagined conversation with slow cooker), so I forgave myself and pulled out a skillet. Thankfully, I did still have use of the gas range, at least for the moment. When the meatballs were browned, I sent them into the slow cooker to simmer on low until Les comes home at dinner time, and hopefully he will say, “the house smells great!”

I had planned to serve this meal in a “stroganoff” style, though I decided not to swirl in sour cream because it looked unappetizing. The partial box of lasagna noodles that Les had given me had eight noodles, which I boiled and cut into manageable strips for serving.

All the components are in there; the kielbasa, mushrooms, lasagna noodles and maple-bourbon braising sauce.
Fingers crossed!

Yeah, take a big ol’ bite, Babe!

As promised, I also found three other ways to use up the remaining smoked kielbasa.

“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. 5 – “A pinsa this, a pinsa that”)

With a few weeks to go before our kitchen shuts down for renovation, my husband, Les, and I are scrambling to use up all the random ingredients in our pantry, fridge and freezer. We decided to turn our adventures into a fun challenge, and it’s time for another episode.

Before we started our challenge, Les and I 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 Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (we do).

OK, let’s do this! Please press play on the video to see what kind if ingredients I had to work with for my third challenge!

It seems pretty obvious that I should make some kind of flatbread appetizer from these basket ingredients, right? And perhaps on another day, that’s what I would do. Les said himself that he might have made it too easy for me, and I tend to agree. Pizzas are such a regular entry for me, and I want to push myself out of my comfort zone, and that means—no pizza here today!

Artichoke and crab have become well-acquainted in other dishes I’ve made here on Comfort du Jour, including this creamy artichoke and crab appetizer dip and these crab and artichoke cakes that found their way to the top of a cobb salad. If you love these flavors together, please circle back to check out these recipes.

I wanted to try something different with these complementary flavors, and I had never paired them in a soup, nor had I even tasted them together in a soup. I was certain it would be delicious.

I think this is the beginning of a beautiful soup!

So that’s what I’ll be making from my mystery basket—soup! It was a tossup whether to take it in a smooth and creamy direction (think bisque) or rustic and chunky (as a chowder). Either would be tasty, and I decided to let the ingredients show me along the way which version would be best. The Kalamata olives don’t fit (at least not yet), so I set them aside. And then there was the matter of the pinsa dough, which is an interesting type of flatbread that is gaining some traction in the modern restaurant world. I like to think I am on the front of the curve with fun “new” foods, but I had only heard of pinsa very recently, so it has been a bit of a mystery to me. I will come back to that later.

To start, I rendered small cubes of bacon and set them aside to be a crispy topper for the soup, which would be delicious, regardless of whether I went creamy or chowder-y. Next, I sauteed a couple of leeks that were sliced thin, and that picked up all the delicious browned-on bacon goodness from the bottom of my pan. Diced baby red potatoes went in next, and it occurred to me that tossing them in there may have limited me to the chowder category, given that I’d have to puree the mixture to make it a bisque. I already had my doubts about pureeing the soup, because of the fibrous nature of the leaf part of the artichoke hearts. And now, potato skins, too? Hmm.

I cut up the artichoke hearts, reserving the tender “bottom” part of several, and tossing the rest into the pot, along with seafood stock, dry white wine and a bay leaf. After a good simmering, I would decide between bisque and chowder. I still had decisions to make about the Kalamatas and the pinsa.

The Kalamatas and artichoke hearts can play nice together, but the sweet lump crab has such a delicate flavor that I didn’t want the bold Kalamatas mingling with it in the same dish. Frankly, I was surprised that Les put the Kalamatas in the basket because he doesn’t really like their flavor. To balance them, I added in a couple of my favorite martini olives, which are a brighter flavor, soaked in vermouth and stuffed with preserved lemon peel. The result was a tapenade, an appetizer dip I had learned to make during my time in the catering kitchen. This version was delicious, but I was skeptical about whether Les would like it, so I added one more thing, a small handful of sweet sun-dried tomatoes, and that was perfect. I could serve this on the side of the artichoke-crab soup, but how?

Ultimately, it was the Kalamata olives—what I considered to be the red herring of this basket—that pushed me to my decision on the pinsa. I was confident that Les would like the balance of the tapenade mixture, and the pinsa dough would have to carry it. It helped to know a bit more about this interesting “new” bread product, so I’ll share what my research taught me.

Pinsa Romana dough

What is pinsa dough, anyway?

Imagine the result if focaccia and a cloud had a baby. That’s pinsa, puffy and airy and very different from pizza dough. Pinsa dough has a high water content, which makes it a little fussier to work with, but gives it those lovely air pockets. The dough has a cold-and-slow fermentation method that guarantees terrific flavor. And pinsa is traditionally made from a combination of flours, including typical wheat, but also soy and rice flours. This gives it higher protein, easier digestibility and supreme crispiness when baked. It is light, crispy and heavenly to bite into. And though it may seem like an innovative take on bread, a new discovery from some leading-edge chef, pinsa has been around for a very long time—some say back to ancient Roman days. Who knows where it has been hiding all this time, but as I have said here many times, all things old become new again, and pinsa is back in the game!

As Les pointed out during the unveiling of my mystery basket, this flatbread dough he pulled from our freezer for my basket was given to us by a friend in the restaurant business. Our buddy, Dave Hillman, is always on the lookout for interesting foods, and he has three local-to-us restaurants of his own to serve as testing grounds for the fun things he finds. One of them, Burke Street Pizza, has won the favor of my native New Yorker husband as a “real deal” version of N.Y. pizza, but that’s not where the pinsa came from. Another of his restaurants, West End Poke, offers a modern approach to healthy eating with poke, a native Hawaiian dish that has rightfully gained a lot of attention in the mainland U.S. in recent years. Dave’s third local restaurant, a casual tavern eatery called The Quiet Pint, could best be described as a gastropub, a term Dave says means they “serve up your favorite pub fare, but with interesting twists.” One of those recent twists is pinsa dough, the base for the Pint’s creative flatbread pizzas.

The pinsa dough is the most unusual ingredient in my basket, and I needed time to consider how to give it proper attention. My goal is to take full advantage of its crispy nature and also to make it the key that ties the creamy, silky soup with the chunky, savory tapenade. And though the dough was already par-baked, I still had options for transforming it to serve a new purpose with the other ingredients of my mystery basket meal. The pinsa would become breadsticks.

From that decision forward, it was all a bit of a blur. The potatoes and artichoke hearts had become very tender during the simmer, so I pulled out my trusty immersion blender and pureed it smooth. This was not a problem with either the fibrous artichokes or the red potato skins; it was quite lovely. I added heavy cream, another splash of wine and about a cup of the sweet lump crab and let it simmer to heat through.

The delicate pinsa was fully thawed by this time, and I used my kitchen shears to cut it into strips about 1 inch wide. I minced several cloves of fresh garlic and drowned them in melted butter, which I brushed onto one side of my pinsa sticks. A few minutes in the oven, then I turned them and brushed the other side. They emerged from the oven with an ethereally crispy, perfect texture.

I topped the creamy artichoke crab bisque with additional fresh crab, the crispy bacon and a broiled lemon slice. A quick smear of my artichoke and garlic hummus (a recipe I shared a few days ago here) went down on the plate, topped with the kalamata-artichoke heart tapenade, and accompanied by the pinsa breadsticks, which pretty much stole the show.

Who’s hungry?

I am super proud of the way I used these basket ingredients but, as always, the decision lies with our esteemed panel of culinary judges—Les. 😊

That crunch! 🙂

You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise in exchange for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀


“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. 3 – “Holy Mole”)

Things are steaming up around here, as my husband, Les, and I count down the weeks til the kickoff of our kitchen remodel. We are doing our best to trim the pantry and freezer inventory before we get there, to help ease the pain that comes naturally with home renovation. I will admit that I have been nervous, not only for turning my own mystery basket into something special, but also for preparing baskets for Les. I don’t want to stump him, but I also don’t want to hand him a victory on a silver platter. As this challenge continues, we are certain to face weirder combinations of ingredients than either of us imagined.

Before we started our challenge, Les and I 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 Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats.

It’s time for my second basket of mystery ingredients in our homegrown “Chopped” challenge, and I can hardly stand still.

Holy Mole.

My first reaction for this whole chicken is disappointment because I was planning to make soup with it, and now that plan is shot. But this also reveals one of my own personal shortcomings—I have wanted to make soup with the chicken since last August, and I still haven’t. My procrastination is part of the reason we have so much stuff! Les did us a big favor by putting that thing in my Chopped basket.

This was my chance to do something cool with the chicken, even more special than soup, and my first step would be brining it in a mixture that would include the Wicked Whiskey honey. After 11 months in the freezer, it probably needs a flavor boost and some assurance of retained moisture. I got that started and sent it to the fridge for five hours.

Let’s talk about this jalapeno sauce for a moment. This awful, one-note, ugly-to-look-at, disgusting jalapeno sauce. I’m usually all about the novel condiments at Trader Joe’s, but this product has been letting me down since Les first brought it home a few months ago. All I taste in it is jalapeno and heat. There’s no balance of acid or sweetness or even salt. It has a weird creamy texture, and I am suspicious of any product that tastes creamy without a speck of cream on the ingredients list. And that color—ugh.  

I’m going to bury the sauce by blending it into the broth used to make brown rice, and I’ll add my own complementary flavors, in the form of fresh jalapenos, scallions and grilled fresh pineapple brushed with more of the Wicked Whiskey honey. Basically, I’m trying to play up the jalapeno flavor while simultaneously hiding the sauce. Is that gonna work? We’ll see.

That leaves the mole, and although it seems like a random ingredient, it is something I was quite proud of when I first made it. Mole is a traditional, labor-of-love sauce, signature to the Mexican region of Puebla, where they love blending chiles with fruit and onions and nuts and seeds and (wait for it) dark chocolate! My guess about the origin of this mole was on point; I looked through my iPhone and found the photos I took while making this sauce for Cinco de Mayo—in 2019! My favorite part was melting in the dark chocolate. 😊

Despite having been in the deep freezer for two years, the mole still had exquisite layers of flavor. I blended it with a bit of olive oil and a touch of Wicked Whiskey honey, and I rubbed it all over the brined chicken, which I roasted over root vegetables on the convection setting of our oven for I have no idea how long, and lo and behold, it turned out beautiful!

The mole-rubbed chicken looks great, but how does it taste, and what about that rice made with disgusting jalapeno sauce? It’s time for judging.

Les is a very generous judge. In my own opinion, the jalapeno sauce-infused rice was decidedly not a winner, and not only because the sauce is gross. I overcooked it because I miscalculated the amount of liquid when I blended in the jalapeno sauce. It was edible, but not delicious.

But that chicken!

Thank you, dear reader, for joining us on this crazy culinary journey! The next basket is for Les. I’ll spring it on him tomorrow—stay tuned! 🙂

“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!

“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 1 – “Mystery Meat”)

Planning and living through a kitchen remodel can be stressful business, and my husband, Les, and I are looking for fun ways to distract ourselves from the chaos that will undoubtedly ensue when our remodel begins at the end of summer. We both want to whittle down some of the excess pantry and freezer inventory in our kitchen (and the overflow in the laundry room and the garage) so that we don’t carry it over into our redesigned space. I will admit that I am a bit of a pack rat when it comes to foodstuffs—I cannot seem to resist purchasing unusual ingredients when I see them on a market run. I mean, one never knows when it might be handy to have an extra package of raw cacao on reserve. Or three. Yes, we have a lot of stuff.

Les and I are avid fans of “Chopped” on Food Network, and we play along vicariously, suggesting (OK, sometimes shouting) to the chef competitors how they might use the ingredients in their mystery baskets. We cringe when we see them do something that never ends well, such as putting cooked potatoes in a food processor (instant glue, coming right up!) or repeatedly opening the oven door to see if their dessert still isn’t baking fast enough. We feel the anxiety of the judges in the final seconds, and we often join their chorus, urging the competitors to “just get it on the plate!”

When I casually mentioned to a friend last week that I needed to get creative about using up our own kitchen surplus, she joked that she could imagine me doing my own version of a “Chopped” challenge and scratching ingredients off the inventory list as the weeks wear on for our kitchen work to begin. It was a brilliant idea, and we are off and running with our first episode!

Les and I will not be competing against each other, because we are on the same team. Also, we don’t have multiple cooking stations, ovens and deep fryers, and we certainly do not have a blast chiller or an anti-griddle or a salamander (professional grade broiler oven), as they do on the set of “Chopped.” We do not plan to enforce a time limit on completing the challenge, as our goal is simply to use up our stuff and, of course, eat and enjoy the meals we create through this experience. We are not going to record every moment (you’re welcome), but we will let you in on the fun of the challenge with the unveiling of the mystery baskets we prepare for each other. And, of course, the outcomes.

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

  • 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).

The first challenge was mine. Press “play” on the video to witness the unveiling of my mystery basket. Here we go!!!

I did not expect to feel so nervous!

The mystery meat was easy to identify, once I was able to stop laughing and remove the cover. It was leftover barbacoa, which I made back in February, and five months in the freezer did not do it any favors. It still had plenty of spicy flavor, but the texture was somewhat mushy. To transform it, I would need to combine it with something else, or put it inside something else to make the unpleasant texture less noticeable.

The brownie brittle is a crispy, chocolatey dessert snack that I picked up at Costco. It’s very tasty but in true Costco fashion, there’s just too darn much of it. We have tendency to buy products like this one, and we get bored with it about halfway through. As far as I’m concerned, the brownie brittle is the red herring in this basket. There’s no obvious way to use it, so I’ll set it aside for now.

The butternut squash, as Les pointed out, genuinely has been wearing out its welcome in our kitchen. I bought it near the end of winter, but then I got excited about cooking things for spring and I just kept putting it off. For better or worse, winter squash has a long shelf life. The biggest challenge with the squash is that it’s big, and so there’s a lot of it. My plan to use it up will be to incorporate it into our meal in multiple ways, and I might also try to slip a few pieces to my kitchen assistant, Nilla, who is always on standby and happy to help.

Finally, the poor, sad little apples that have been buried in the fruit drawer for a least a month. They aren’t even the same variety—one Granny Smith and one honeycrisp, although there’s nothing crisp about either of these tired fruits. They won’t mix with the barbacoa, so I will transform them into a dessert, and I’ll use some of the squash in it, too. This is the easiest part of the basket for me. Might as well map this one out; I pulled a box of puff pastry from the freezer (heaven only knows how long it’s been buried in there), and some simple dessert spices.

Add a few spices, some butter and sugar, and this can be dessert.

I cubed the other neck piece and tossed it into the oven to roast, with oil and a little salt and pepper. I love roasted squash, so the hardest thing for me will be not snacking on it while I figure out the rest of the basket. The remaining squash went into a saucepan to simmer until tender, and that’s when the rest of the dish came into focus for me.

Some of the tender squash could be worked into a pasta dough, and it would be a nice color as well as flavor! The barbacoa could be used as a filling for ravioli, but what about my red herring, the sweet brownie brittle? And that’s when it hit me that chocolate is used in mole, and Les always puts a little cocoa powder in a pot of his chili. There it was, I would crush up the brownie brittle and add those dark, chocolaty crumbs to the meat filling! This made sense to me, and when Les took a taste of the barbacoa-brownie brittle mixture, he confirmed it was working. He could taste the chocolate, and said it was good.

The ravioli plan had taken so much attention, I had put the squash and apple tart on the back burner. I thawed a sheet of puff pastry from our freezer, rolled it out to smooth the wrinkles, sprinkled brown sugar and cinnamon over it, then alternated rows of squash and the two kinds of apple, and another sprinkle of cinnamon. Then I folded up the edges, as if making a galette, brushed them with egg white and into the oven.

I also needed a quick sauce to drizzle on the baked squash-apple tart, because it was rather dry and plain from the oven. I melted butter with maple sugar, tossed a small handful of chopped walnuts into it, then more maple sugar and a splash of maple-infused balsamic vinegar. A little bit of tartness is usually exactly what any dish needs to feel and taste “finished,” and both Les and I were sampling this sauce beyond what was necessary. I wish I had made more because it would be great over ice cream. The squash and apple tart turned out tasty, even as leftovers the next evening.

Butternut squash and apple puff pastry tart, with a maple walnut dessert glaze. Winner!

Rolling the pasta didn’t take long (I have been practicing lately and will share more about that soon), and I was thankful to have my ravioli mold to make quick work of finishing that part of the meal. I made an easy “sauce” for my ravioli, using up a half onion from the crisper drawer, the last dregs of a bag of frozen roasted corn, some veggie broth and half and half, and some kind of seasonings but I honestly can’t remember! The finished dish seemed a little boring in color, and everything had a soft texture, so I chopped a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds and scattered them on top. And this one is done.

“Chef Les, I have prepared for you a spiced butternut squash ravioli with barbacoa-brownie brittle filling.
It is topped with a simple roasted corn sauce and caramelized butternut squash, and accented with toasted pumpkin seeds for a little crunch.”

“And that means, Chef Terrie, you have conquered the basket ingredients and chopped your way to victory in the first challenge!”

Will Les have what it takes to do the same? Find out next week, when we unveil his mystery basket ingredients!

Oh, and just for fun, I combined the final 1/2 cup of cooked butternut squash with some rolled oats, brown rice flour, a touch of cinnamon and the rest of the pasta egg mixture. Processed it, scooped it out and baked it up as cookies for my kitchen helper. 🙂 ❤