Sloppy “Dogs”

Recently in my news feed wanderings, I spotted an article claiming to list the “7 Classic American Dishes No One Eats Anymore.” This type article always grabs my attention because I immediately assume I’m the exceptional person—the one who does actually still eat the foods that are supposedly yesterday’s news.

The list held a few surprises for me.

Chicken cordon bleu made a showing at #5, and I cannot get behind that. Soon, I’ll share my recipe for this classic dish and a story about the time I made chicken cordon bleu from memory at midnight—on a dare. Some of the other dishes listed in the article truly are better left in the past, such as turkey tetrazzini, which is just a hot mess of a dish that includes leftover turkey with spaghetti and canned peas (blech), and the dreaded creamed chipped beef on toast. Folks, there’s a reason everyone started calling that dish sh!t on a shingle. Let’s just leave it behind, shall we?

Today though, I’m showing due respect for the food item that ranked #1 on the list, the sloppy joe. What is the world coming to, if people are giving up on this fun and tasty handheld, with all its sweet, spicy, tangy sauce? Was it the SNL skit featuring Adam Sandler and the late Chris Farley? I thought that catchy tune was responsible for saving the sloppy joe, not burying it.

The only thing I can find to blame for sloppy joe’s ill-fated appearance on this list of “has-beens” is that people have grown bored with the mass-produced stuff that made sloppy joes so common in the first place, and that would be the canned sloppy joe sauce. Yep, good old Manwich. It exploded onto the convenience food scene in 1969, and everyone embraced this miracle in a can that turned a pound of ground meat into an easy, casual family dinner.

Fast forward 51 years. Palates have evolved (for better or worse), and at the same time, Manwich and other convenience foods went all in with the use of cheap, controversial ingredients—namely, high fructose corn syrup (boo, hiss). Despite mounting flak from savvy consumers, the fake sweetener is still listed as an ingredient on the Manwich label, so it won’t land in my grocery cart anytime soon. No matter, because it’s super easy to make sloppy joes at home without a pre-made commercial sauce. I’ll show you how to mix and match ingredients that are already in your refrigerator door to get the same fun, tangy flavor, but without weird additives (caramel color doesn’t add a thing to Manwich anyway). Use any kind of ground meat you like—I’m going to lighten mine up with ground turkey, and I’m also switching up the presentation by serving them on toasted hot dog buns. That makes them sloppy dogs! Who’s hungry?

Chunky, meaty, tangy, spicy.
Sloppy dogs, sloppy, sloppy dogs!

Ingredients

1 pound ground turkey

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 medium onion, chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (most of a 15 oz. can)

2 Tbsp. tomato paste

2 Tbsp. distilled white vinegar

2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 Tbsp. molasses (or substitute brown sugar)

1 tsp. sweet smoked Spanish paprika

1 tsp. garlic powder

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)

Pinch of cinnamon

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

2 Tbsp. chopped pickle chips (sweet, spicy or whatever you like)

4 toasted hot dog (or burger) buns, for serving


Instructions

  1. Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and saute onions and bell peppers until soft and translucent, but not browned.
  2. Add ground meat in a large chunk, on top of the vegetables. Gradually break up the meat with a wooden spoon or spatula and aim to keep the meat chunky.
  3. Combine tomato sauce, tomato paste, vinegar, mustard, molasses, Worcestershire and spices. Add to the meat mixture and stir gently to blend. If mixture looks is too thick, add a splash of water. If it’s too thin, add another spoon of tomato paste. It’s your kitchen, so take charge and don’t worry about my recipe. Let your taste buds tell you whether the mixture needs more salt,  sweet or tang, and adjust accordingly.
  4. Add the chopped pickles near the end of cooking time, for a zippy crunch.
  5. Cover mixture and simmer a few minutes as needed to prepare the rest of your dinner.
  6. Butter the cut insides of your dog (or burger) buns, and toast the buttered side on a griddle or hot skillet.
  7. Pile the sloppy mixture onto the toasted buns and enjoy!
These sloppy dogs were delicious served up with my Snakes in the Pumking Patch beer cocktail.

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Confetti Chicken Meatballs

Once upon a time, I cooked these fun and colorful meatballs for a little girl…

OK, it wasn’t that long ago, and it wasn’t “once” upon a time—rather, multiple times over the better part of a decade. During a previous marriage, I had the joy of cooking for (and eventually, with) a bright and sassy, food-loving child who was my stepdaughter. From a distance, it was clear that this blue-eyed towhead was not a blood relative. Up close, however, one might swear that she must have been mine, given that she swooned over cooking shows such as Emeril Live, Good Eats and The Next Food Network Star. The child was obsessed, even, and she always had something intelligent to say about whatever food was being prepared on our TV screen.

“I’ll bet Emeril’s gonna put that skillet into the oven to finish it.” And, sure enough, that’s what he would do.

To nurture her curiosity and passion for food, I did the only thing that made sense to me—I bought her a junior-sized denim apron and put her to work alongside me in the kitchen. I passed down to her the food lessons and techniques that had been passed down to me, and it wasn’t long before she was the most excellent sous chef. I could ask her to “julienne those two carrots over there” and she’d return in short order with perfectly uniform little matchsticks. She knew what it meant to “chiffonade” fresh basil or “caramelize” onions without burning them. Her palate became even more sophisticated as she continued to help in the kitchen, and by the time she left home for college, she requested written copies of some of her favorite recipes that we had made together.

Whether this recipe was included in the request I cannot recall, but it was undoubtedly one of her favorites. I’ve tweaked it recently, opting to make my own dressing rather than depending on a bottled version from the supermarket, though we’d have no objection to anyone taking that shortcut. I’ve also discovered that coconut sugar produces a better glaze on the meatballs than my original method of rolling them in regular sugar. Coconut sugar is richer, both in color and flavor, and it’s lower on the glycemic index, so probably a better choice anyway.

This dish is similar to my copycat chicken lettuce wraps, but only in the fact that both contain ground chicken and Asian-inspired flavors. Although the “copycat” version is distinctly spicy and savory, this dish is more of a mixed bag of flavors and textures. The chicken is shaped into firm meatballs, each one carrying its own little confetti explosion of sweet bell pepper and sharp garlic and scallion, but softened on the outside by a sweet, sticky glaze. The sesame ginger dressing permeates the senses from the moment it reaches the table, and no wonder—it’s inside the meatballs, too.

The coconut sugar produces a lightly sticky glaze, boosting the flavors over the top and complementing the barely spicy, tangy dressing.

Serve this on its own or with steaming hot jasmine rice. As a meal, it’s good for 4 servings. If serving as appetizers, the recipe makes 18.

Ingredients

1 lb. ground chicken (not chicken breast)

3 scallions (white and green parts)

2 or 3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 large red bell pepper

1/2 large yellow bell pepper

1 egg

1/2 cup unseasoned panko bread crumbs

1 tsp. sesame seeds

About 1 Tbsp. Sesame Ginger dressing (recipe below)

1/2 cup coconut sugar (to “frost” the meatballs before baking)


For Serving

1 large romaine heart, rinsed, dried and separated into individual leaves

1/2 medium red onion, cut into thin slices

A handful of fresh cilantro leaves (optional, but recommended for serving)

Additional sesame seeds to sprinkle (optional, or serving)

Jasmine rice, if desired, for serving


Sesame Ginger Dressing

2 Tbsp. rice vinegar

2 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce (or Tamari)

1 Tbsp. coconut sugar

1 tsp. sriracha (optional, if you like a little heat)

1 tsp. fish sauce

3 Tbsp. canola or peanut oil

1 or 2 tsp. toasted sesame oil (depending on taste)


Instructions

First, the visuals:


  1. Combine the garlic, peppers and scallions in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse 10 times, for 1 second each, until the mixture looks like colorful confetti. Sprinkle a generous pinch of kosher salt over the pepper mixture.
  2. Line a colander with double thickness paper towels and transfer the processed pepper mixture to it. Allow it to rest in the colander long enough to absorb the excess moisture from the mixture, about 10 minutes.
  3. In a glass measuring cup, whisk together the first five dressing ingredients. Slowly drizzle in the canola or peanut oil while whisking constantly. This will help to emulsify the ingredients. Whisk in 1 teaspoon of the toasted sesame oil and give it a taste. Add more if you like. This oil is very pungent, so generally speaking, a little goes a long way.
  4. Season ground chicken with kosher or sea salt and fresh ground black pepper. Combine confetti veggies with chicken, egg, a splash of sesame ginger dressing, sesame seeds and panko crumbs. Mix with a wooden spoon or your hands. It will be a gooey mix, but if it’s too wet to hold together, add an extra sprinkle of bread crumbs. If it seems dry, add another splash of sesame ginger dressing.
  5. Add coconut sugar to a shallow dish or small bowl.  Shape the mixture into meatballs about 1 1/2” diameter. Working quickly, roll the meatballs through the sugar, just enough to frost each one, and roll again in your hands to fully adhere the sugar, which will become a glaze on the baked meatballs. Place meatballs into a 9×13 glass baking dish, allowing space between them. Bake at 350° for 25 to 30 minutes.
  6. Arrange romaine leaves on a platter, then bed your meatballs on them. Whisk the dressing ingredients again. Scatter red onion slices over the top and drizzle with the sesame ginger dressing. Sprinkle with cilantro leaves and sesame seeds and serve (with rice, if desired).
What happened to the 18th meatball? And why am I licking my lips right now?

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Jamaican Jerk Chicken Stuffed Peppers

If there’s a better way to knock down a huge pile of peppers, I don’t what it is other than stuffing them with great flavors. Like you, I’ve had them the traditional way—with ground beef and rice, topped with tomato sauce. One of my go-to recipes through the years has been turkey stuffed peppers. But this time, my pepper purchase included a half dozen of these huge red beauties, and they have been begging me for something a little special.

Red bell peppers have so much going on. They are far sweeter than green bell peppers, packed with vitamin C (more than oranges, in fact) and well-suited to a number of terrific ethnic cuisines, including Italian, Asian, Spanish and, as we’re about to dive into today, Caribbean.

You don’t have to love spicy flavors to enjoy Jamaican jerk, but it certainly helps. A traditional jerk blend includes fresh thyme, allspice, scallions, a bunch of black pepper, ginger, nutmeg and a good dose of super-hot habanero pepper. But it’s not difficult to find a seasoning that backs off the habanero, and of course, you can always make your own from scratch.

This is the stuff, right here! Find it at Whole Foods, gourmet specialty stores or online.

This one happens to be my favorite, straight from Jamaica (as it should be) and packing plenty of heat. The brand is available at most Whole Foods stores or online. If your market doesn’t carry it, look for another with the aforementioned ingredients.

Another thing I love about the flavors in this recipe is that it’s very adaptable to vegan preferences. I’m always on the lookout for ways to make a recipe completely plant-based, because we never know when Les’s daughter may be free for a visit, and this one would be a snap. Just omit the chicken and double the sweet potato and black beans—done!

This recipe serves 2, double it up to feed a hungry family.


Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. ground chicken

1 small red onion, chopped

1 medium raw sweet potato, shredded* (see notes)

1/2 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1 Tbsp. Jamaican jerk seasoning*

2 large red bell peppers

*Notes

Shredding the sweet potatoes helps speed up the recipe because they cook so quickly. If you prefer, you could cut them into small cubes and give them a little more time to soften before adding the black beans. I used the food processor to shred them, but a box grater would also work.

The jerk seasoning I like is meant to be a rub for grilling or smoking, rather than an add-in, so it’s tipping the scale toward the sodium side. For this reason, no additional salt is mentioned in the recipe—the jerk seasoning has it covered. I always recommend examining the nutrition information on labels so you know what you’re getting into. If you use a dry jerk seasoning rub, it’s likely to have even more salt, so use your judgment and cut back to a lesser amount accordingly.

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center.
  2. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat, swirl in olive oil and brown the ground chicken with the onion and green bell pepper. When chicken is no longer pink and vegetables are softened, add shredded sweet potato and black beans. Cook a few more minutes, until sweet potato is tender. Mix in the Jamaican jerk seasoning rub and stir to combine.
  3. Prep the red bell peppers by cutting the tops just below the stem line. I like to replace the top during baking and presentation, so it helps to cut low enough to keep the stem intact. Use a paring knife to cut around the seed pod and remove seeds and membranes.
  4. Soften the whole peppers by putting them upside-down in a microwave-safe dish with about 1/2” water (with the tops squeezed in the side), and microwave at full power about 2 minutes.
  5. Fill peppers with jerk chicken mixture, replace tops and cover peppers tightly with foil. This will help retain moisture while the peppers bake for 35 to 40 minutes.

They’re spicy, fresh and satisfying, packed with plenty of nutrients. Serve the peppers piping hot, just as they are, or with your favorite island-inspired sides. This was a test run for me, and now that I know it’s a keeper, I’ll make some mango-scallion rice to go with it. Won’t that be pretty?

There’s so much flavor and nutrition packed into this dish. My husband feared he wouldn’t be able to finish his portion.

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Yep, he finished it.

Spotlight on Peppers

Some women are dazzled by diamonds, others by expensive cars. Me, I tend to get overjoyed with really simple things, such as this stunning display of fresh peppers I ran into on one of my recent grocery runs. There are so many things I can do with peppers, and I couldn’t resist buying up a bunch of them.

But all of my best intentions lost a bit of their sparkle when I came home to the harsh reminder that we still don’t have enough room in the veggie drawer for two weeks’ worth of fresh stuff. So I had to come up with a plan, and fast. As a result, this week and next I’ll be focusing on some go-to recipes, along with new twists and some experiments, for using up those peppers. Along with some (hopefully) great dishes, I’ll show you a few of the tips I’ve learned for working with them, especially from my time in the catering kitchen, where every minute counted.

But first, a lesson, and forgive me if you’ve already seen this on Pinterest:

Who knew?

Did you know about the idea that bell peppers with three lobes on the bottom are males, best for cooking, while peppers with four lobes are females, chock-full of seeds, but sweeter and better for eating raw? This is fascinating to me.

As luck would have it, I have one of each—a yellow “male” and a bright red “female.” We’ll test this claim, but more importantly, here comes my first tip. To avoid getting seeds everywhere when you cut open a pepper, turn it upside down and use a sharp paring knife to just barely cut through the skin, along the natural lines of the pepper. Then, pull the individual sections of pepper out and down toward the stem, like you’re peeling an orange. Keep going until the section snaps at the stem end, leaving the seed pod behind. Repeat with the other sections until all you have left is the stem and seeds.

Almost all the seeds remained with the stem piece, which means less time you’ll spend wiping them off your knife blade or sweeping them away from the cutting board. I did the same with the “male” pepper, and you can see the two compared. The yellow pepper definitely cut apart cleaner, which is more about how I cut it than anything else—no messy seed cleanup. But how about that claim that the “female” pepper is sweeter and has more seeds?

OK, the red pepper probably is sweeter, but not because it’s female. It’s because of the color. All deeply colored fruits and vegetables are more flavorful than their paler counterparts because they are more ripe. Without standing here and counting the seeds, I can honestly say I don’t see much of a difference between the two stems I’m holding.

As cool as it would have been to get the skinny on the whole male vs. female pepper thing, the truth is it’s a bogus claim. And although the rumor continues to spread faster than kudzu all over the internet, botanical experts everywhere have declared it has no merit, so let’s just move along because it’s almost dinner time and I think we can all agree we’re getting hungry just staring at all these fresh peppers, especially now that I’ve thrown in a zucchini.

We are getting about six servings of vegetables in this one meal!

This first “spotlight on peppers” recipe is super simple, perfect for outdoor cooking and an easy way to max out our daily servings of vegetables. It doesn’t hurt that we also won’t have a lot of cleanup, because we’re moving this party outside—to the grill!

You’ll need some grilling skewers for threading the vegetables and shrimp, or, even easier, one of those cool stainless steel grilling baskets.


Ingredients

1 red bell pepper  (any gender is fine) 🙂

1 yellow bell pepper

1 medium onion, cut into large chunks

1 medium zucchini, cut into large chunks

8 oz. package fresh cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed

Marinade*

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

Garlic pepper or lemon pepper seasoning

1/2 tsp. dried herb leaves (oregano, basil, whatever you like)

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil


About 1 lb. fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon, plus a little of the zest

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

*Notes

Much of the time, I don’t even bother marinating veggies before grilling, because a little olive oil and plain old sea salt and pepper brings out enough of their flavor. But on this occasion, I discovered an almost-empty bottle of Dijon mustard in the fridge, so it seems like a good time to offer one of my favorite tricks for using every last little bit. I use Dijon anyway to aid in blending a vinaigrette-style dressing or marinade, and when I can’t squeeze any more out of the bottle, I just add the other ingredients to it and shake it up to use what’s left. As a bonus, it further reduces the dirty dishes, because I can discard or recycle the bottle when I’m done with the marinade.

I realize the odds are low that your own Dijon is also down to the dregs, so I’ve offered approximate amounts, but keep this idea in mind the next time you’re at the bottom of a bottle (of mustard, that is).

Instructions

Combine the marinade ingredients, then toss the peppers, zucchini and mushrooms and let them rest while you prep the rest of the recipe. I’ve gently tossed the onions chunks in a different bowl, so they don’t separate too much before I thread everything onto skewers.

Combine the garlic, lemon juice and olive oil and toss the shrimp to coat. They don’t need to be dripping in the marinade—just a light coating is fine.

Preheat the grill to medium heat, and thread the veggies onto the skewers however you’d like—if you want to keep all peppers together, separate from skewers full of mushrooms or zucchini, that’s cool. I usually mix them up, but I always keep the shrimp separate because they don’t require as much time.

Here’s a quick tip I’ve found on the skewering, to prevent spearing yourself when you thread them—especially if they’re a little slippery from the marinade. Put the veggies flat on the cutting board and then stab the skewer down into them. It keeps your hands out of the line of fire. No sense turning an easy dinner into an all-night adventure at urgent care.

Move the skewered veggies to the grill and cook over low to medium heat until tender and lightly charred. The shrimp cook quickly, so add them to the mix when everything else is nearly done.

Light, fresh and healthy. Les and I love this simple kind of meal just as it is, but it would also be great over a bed of herbed rice or polenta.

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Bonus tip:

For the record, sometimes I do recommend peeking at the bottom of peppers and selecting the ones with four lobes instead of three—not because of any weird gender claim, but simply because they stand up better when they’re stuffed with meat or rice if they are even and balanced on the bottom. Let’s revisit that when we make some Caribbean stuffed peppers next week.