“Big Kahuna” Pizza

I didn’t have much notice to plan for it or I would have announced to all of you that this past Friday was “National Make a Ruckus Day.” My husband, Les, and I have been planning various improvement projects this spring, and we had no sooner made a final decision on the color of architectural shingles we liked for a roof revamp when his phone rang just after dinner Thursday night. The shingles were in stock and the weather was right, so the crew would arrive at the crack of dawn!

The crew arrived early, and there were either six or seven of them—it was hard to tell because they didn’t stand still long enough for a headcount, and I am still in a bit of shock that their work was completed in one day. The noise was non-stop, from the stomping overhead, to the ripping and peeling sounds of the old shingles coming off, to the banging of hammers and air nailers installing the new roofing materials, to the construction-grade boombox that was blasting lively mariachi music just outside my home office window. All day Friday, both entrances to our home were blocked, and tarps stretched out across the yard to catch the refuse that was being flung from above. Les was working from home that day, so we were sequestered into our own “zones” of the house. The dog, who is terrified of any noise she cannot see, spent most of the day crammed against my knees underneath my work desk, the cat was just plain pissed that she couldn’t go outside (she didn’t understand that her life might have been at risk), and I was so frazzled about all of the above that I started contemplating tequila shots at about 2 in the afternoon.

On top of what was happening at our address, the neighbors across the cul-de-sac had a contractor show up to replace flooring in their master bedroom, and our yard crew was running a day behind on mowing and trimming, so they showed up on Friday to pretty up the common spaces.

There were trucks and trailers and service vans everywhere, and full-on RUCKUS.

There was no way I could escape the house, even to take my daily walk, let alone to make a grocery run, and so I was thankful that dinner was already planned. The whole experience of chaos, Les said, was good practice for the excitement we will experience if we follow through on remodeling our kitchen later this year. I’ve been griping about our kitchen since I moved into the house with him a few years ago, and we are finally ready to apply solutions for our lack of counter space, poor traffic flow and shortage of pantry storage. But committing to the project is scary, not only for the cost, but the time involved. Each contractor we have spoken to has said, “plan for at least six weeks without your kitchen.” And it is true—no matter what Chip and JoJo seem to accomplish in one hour on HGTV—new kitchens take time, and that will be a big challenge. We will figure out how to eat, but how will I be able to sustain the blog?

There might be a lot of grilling recipes coming your way, or it could be a good time for me to catch up on the vast backlog of recipes I have made but not yet transformed into posts. Or I may turn my attention to other ideas I have had for Comfort du Jour, including fun furniture projects and artistic ventures. I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at upcycling tables and worn out chairs. Of course, I may also spend six weeks sharing nothing but cocktail recipes, which—given my low tolerance for ruckus—will probably be in hot rotation.

Anyway, we relaxed under our new roof Friday night with this pizza, our interpretation of one of our favorite take-out sandwiches. We have long enjoyed the “big kahuna” sandwich from Jersey Mike’s, which is a variation of a Philly cheesesteak, but with mushrooms and jalapenos thrown into the mix, and plenty of gooey white cheese. The sandwich is awesome (especially when we ask for extra jalapenos), but it’s so packed with ingredients that we knew that our usual N.Y. thin crust could not hold it all in pizza form.

This beautifully browned pie emerged from the oven with the most pleasing aroma.

We went with a deep-dish pie this time, beginning with the crust, adapted from a King Arthur Baking recipe. I followed the recipe nearly to the letter except for a partial sub-in of white whole wheat flour. You know I’m always going to share my honest opinion, and frankly, I did not love this crust. It was easy enough to make, and instructions were clear and complete, but the recipe called for oil and also quite a bit of melted butter, which I haven’t really seen before as an ingredient for pizza dough. It rose on schedule and baked up beautifully, but the end result, for me, was too similar to pie crust or biscuits, and not quite right for pizza. I would consider it again for some kind of vegetable tart, but for pizza I will stick with the formula offered by Jeff Mauro from Food Network. His recipe with all olive oil makes a wonderful, crunchy-but-soft crust that is so, so good on a deep-dish pizza.

As with most near-misses in our kitchen, this pizza was still delicious. And it was extra yummy after such an unexpectedly noisy Friday.


Ingredients

One deep-dish pizza dough—you choose: King Arthur Baking or Food Network’s Jeff Mauro

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced

5 or 6 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2/3 lb. thinly shaved steak*

1/2 cup pickled jalapenos, patted dry and chopped

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

About 4 oz. white American cheese, cubed

1 1/2 cups shredded pepper jack cheese

Let’s walk through it together:

Instructions

  1. Prepare the dough for your deep-dish pizza. This will take some time, depending on the recipe you choose.
  2. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add a couple swirls of olive oil and saute the onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Onions should be soft and translucent and mushrooms should be browned on both sides. Transfer vegetables to a dish and set aside.
  3. In the same skillet, over medium-high heat, swirl in olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When oil is shimmering, add the shaved steak, a few pieces at a time, and toss around to brown it all over. Don’t overcrowd the pan, or the meat will steam rather than brown. Transfer cooked steak to a dish and continue until all the steak is cooked. You may not use all of it on the pizza.
  4. Make the white cheese sauce, beginning with a butter and flour roux in a medium saucepan. Heat the butter until bubbly, then add the flour and whisk together until it appears foamy and the butter is browned. Add the milk all at once and whisk constantly until mixture is smooth, thickened and lightly bubbling. Add cubed American cheese and stir or whisk until melted. Reduce heat to very low to keep sauce slightly warm and pourable while you prep the pizza crust.
  5. Preheat oven to 450° F, with oven rack in the center of the oven.
  6. Place your prepared deep-dish dough into a 14-inch pan (or two 9-inch cake pans), and press gently to spread the dough out to the edges and up the sides about an inch. If the dough is very springy, cover the pan for 15 minutes, allowing the gluten to relax before proceeding.
  7. Scatter the shredded pepperjack cheese evenly over the pizza dough, and press down firmly to ensure good coverage.
  8. Load up your toppings, including the steak, vegetables and jalapeno peppers.
  9. Drizzle the white cheese sauce all over the top. If the sauce does not readily flow into the nooks and crannies, give it an assist with a spatula or spoon.
  10. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the cheese sauce is browned and bubbling, and crust is a deep golden brown. Check on it at the halfway point, and tent loosely with foil, if necessary, to prevent over-browning of the cheese. Rest finished pizza about 15 minutes before using large spatulas to transfer it to a cutting board or round pizza sheet.

Les is so good at this part! He uses a large spatula and a fish turner to move the whole pie.

In case you are curious about the outcome… Wow, what a difference a day can make!

Before and After!


Greek-inspired Frittata with Potato Crust

It’s that moment when you find that the package of chicken you were counting on for dinner is two days past its “best by” date. Or the panic that hits you when you suddenly realize at the end of a hectic work-from-home day that you completely forgot to go to the grocery store. Moments such as these demand improvisation, and when catastrophe occurs, I have one Plan B that I can always count on—breakfast for dinner.

Even if it’s slim pickings in the refrigerator, there’s a very good chance I have eggs and few random vegetables. There’s always some kind of cheese in the deli drawer, and that already sounds like an omelet in the making, which is our go-to dish when we are looking at breakfast for dinner. But this time, I went all in on a big-flavor frittata, pulling together a Greek theme with spinach, onions and red bell peppers I found in the fridge, along with some feta cheese, kalamata olives, oregano and dill. And though frittatas—which are basically quiche’s crustless cousins—usually only have eggs and fillings, this one takes advantage of that half-bag of shredded potatoes I found in the back of the cheese drawer. OK, who’s hungry?

Great Mediterranean flavors and plenty of nutrition in this filling “breakfast for dinner!”

Turning random leftovers into a flavorful breakfast for dinner on a busy weeknight? That’s Comfort du Jour.


Ingredients

3 or 4 slices bacon, chopped into one inch pieces

1/2 bag Simply Potatoes hash browns* (see notes)

1/2 onion, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

2 fat handfuls fresh baby spinach leaves, rough chopped

1/4 tsp. dried dill leaves

6 eggs, at room temperature

1/2 cup half and half*

2 oz. block feta cheese, crumbled

Fresh parsley (for garnish)

Handful pitted kalamata olives, rough chopped (for garnish)


*Notes

Simply Potatoes is a brand of pre-shredded potatoes, usually found in the refrigerated breakfast section of the supermarket, or sometimes in dairy (though I don’t know why). I use this convenience product when I make our favorite Easy Hash Brown Waffles, so I frequently have them in my fridge. If you prefer, use about two cups finely shredded fresh potatoes, but wrap them first in a clean towel and squeeze out as much water as you can. Better yet, skip the potato crust and make it a more traditional frittata. May as well keep it simple. 😉

For readers abroad, “half and half” is a common dairy ingredient in the U.S. that is essentially equal parts cream and whole milk. If you are minimizing fat in your diet, you may also substitute with evaporated whole milk.


Instructions

This was simple to make, as you’ll see in the photos. If you’d like written instructions, or a downloadable PDF for your recipe files, keep scrolling.


  1. Preheat oven to 350° F with rack in center of oven.
  2. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add chopped bacon and cook until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon to a plate lined with paper towels. Drain off most of the bacon grease.
  3. Sauté onions and peppers until slightly soft and translucent. Season with salt, pepper and oregano.
  4. Add chopped spinach, one handful at a time, and cook until wilted. Transfer veggies to a separate bowl and set aside. Sprinkle with dried dill.
  5. Increase the skillet heat to medium-high and drizzle in about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the shredded potatoes to the skillet, using a spoon or utensil to press it into the sides. Cook the potatoes in the skillet for about five minutes, then transfer the skillet to the oven for about 20 minutes (or additional 10 minutes for crispier crust).
  6. Combine eggs with half and half, whisking only until blended.
  7. When potatoes are golden at the edges, spread the veggies over the crust, and then scatter the crispy bacon pieces.
  8. Pour egg mixture evenly over the frittata filling. Crumble the feta evenly over the frittata.
  9. Transfer to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until eggs are set and edges are pulled away from the skillet.
  10. Cool about 5 minutes before cutting into wedges. Top portions with fresh chopped parsley and chopped kalamata olives.

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Sausage and Eggplant Leftovers Pizza

“I’ve got leftovers on my leftovers!”

This is what I shouted as I was assembling this patchwork pizza, which had all the classic Italian flavors of eggplant parmesan, lasagna and spicy pepperonata. Yep, all that on a crust. But make no mistake, I did not plan it this way.

The end-of-weekend fridge clearing ritual at our house took an interesting turn last night when my husband, Les, who will never, ever turn his nose up to anything pizza or anything eggplant, suggested that we take the remnants of a sausage and eggplant noodle casserole (which was already a leftover creation), and chop it all up to top some fresh N.Y. pizza dough. After all, he reasoned, the flavors were right for pizza and we knew from experience that cooked macaroni on a thin crust pie was next level comfort food—we had tried it last summer with some leftover mac and cheese and it was awesome—plus, we had just enough scraps of pepperoni and shredded mozzarella to hold it all together. Why not?

I wish I had taken just one photo of the “original” leftover creation, which was sort of a poor man’s lasagna, made of layered cooked elbow macaroni, two leftover grilled spicy Italian sausage links, the sautéed peppers and onions that had topped the sausages on sandwiches earlier in the week, a can of diced tomatoes, ricotta mixed with Italian herbs and our favorite parm-romano blend, plus an eggplant that I had sliced, sweated and quick-roasted, and every last random slice of provolone and thin-sliced mozzarella that had been taking up space in the deli drawer. Unfortunately, I didn’t bother cataloguing the details of the casserole at the time because I hadn’t planned to share it here on Comfort du Jour, and I also hadn’t really planned on sharing this pizza. I have no specific measurements of ingredients or step-by-step photos to share. Sometimes I need to just focus on feeding us, you know? But the end result—this I must share, because it underscores the fact that one should never underestimate the power of leftovers. It’s one of the essential kitchen rules I learned from my grandmother.

Les was proud of the success of this leftover creation, and it just happened to have all his favorite flavors. 🙂

Not every idea in the kitchen has to be new and interesting, nor should everything be same old, same old. But sometimes, if you play it just right, the two collide and become something unexpectedly delicious, as we learned with this pizza. We had three slices leftover, naturally, and they will warm up nicely for lunch as leftovers of the leftover leftovers.

What crazy good thing have you made with leftovers recently? Drop it in the comments section so we can all be inspired!


Leftover Turkey Gumbo

One of the first things we make at our house with Thanksgiving leftovers is “something spicy.” After all the richness and decadence of the classic holiday meal, my taste buds start clamoring for Mexican food or Asian or spicy Italian—really, anything but gravy and potatoes, if you don’t mind. This year’s turkey went on the smoker with a spice and maple sugar rub, so I wasn’t sure how the flavors would work in some of our other usual “planned-over” recipes, but they were perfect for a spicy gumbo. We had heat, smoke, chunky vegetables and an all-day simmer, and that’s covering all the bases for my post-holiday cravings.

Is my gumbo authentic? Who knows, and I’m not even sure who is qualified to judge it. There are as many “authentic” gumbo recipes as there are grandmothers in Louisiana, and you’d likely find they run the gamut from thin soup to chunky stew. Some will be as brown as molasses and others will have tomatoes. Some will be spicy as all get-out, and others will be filled with sweet juicy crab. Okra is standard in most gumbo recipes, but some cooks favor filé, a powdered form of sassafras root that serves as a thickening agent. My gumbo has a roux base and okra, and it’s dang spicy because I make the roux with a blend of canola oil and cayenne-infused olive oil, the latter of which is really hot.

What I’m getting at is simple: my rules are mine, and this gumbo makes everyone at my house happy. It’s delicious as soon as it’s ready and even better after a day or two in the fridge. It uses simple ingredients and it’ll help you clear out some of the space-hogging leftovers (including that huge turkey carcass). And the most “exotic” thing in it is a half bag of frozen okra. You can handle that, right?

If you’re staring down the remains of a Thanksgiving turkey and feeling inspired for a new leftover tradition, give it a go. 🙂

It’s a hearty, satisfying bowl of post-Thanksgiving goodness.

Rule #1 – Do not rush the roux

I’m sorry, dear ones, but I cannot imagine this part is possible in an insta-pot. The roux (equal parts oil and flour) is the backbone of my gumbo, providing flavor and also an assist on thickening. Without roux, this would just be turkey and okra soup. The roux cooks low and slow on the stovetop for about an hour, and I use that time to prep all my other ingredients. If this seems high-maintenance to you, there are instructions online for roasting a roux in the oven (though I’ve never tried it), but this is a breeze on the stovetop. Get it started, then let it be except for an occasional stir. If you get impatient and rush the roux, you will end up with something that tastes either uncooked or burned.

Rule #2 – It must include the trinity

You have probably learned, from TV chefs Justin Wilson or Emeril Lagasse, that onion, celery and bell pepper make up the “holy trinity” of flavors used in Cajun recipes. The combination is essential, whether your menu includes gumbo, étouffée or jambalaya. Thank God there’s a use for the rest of the celery that didn’t go into the dressing. I use sweet onions, but yellow or Spanish onions are fine. I’ve long considered the color of bell pepper to be discretionary, and for this batch of gumbo, I went with a combination of red and green bells because it’s what we had on hand.

Celery + onion + bell pepper = trinity.

Rule #3 – Use a rich stock, preferably homemade

Gumbo recipes require a fair amount of broth or stock, and making homemade stock is the easiest way in the world to eke out every last bit of flavor from your Thanksgiving turkey. After you’ve picked all the useful meat off the frame, drop it into a heavy stockpot with any scraps of turkey skin, a cut-up onion, handful of garlic cloves, a few celery stalks, some peppercorns and a bay leaf or two. Add enough water to nearly cover it and cook it—and I mean really cook it—until you can pull the bones out clean. This will take hours, and nobody would blame you if you decided to do this in your slow cooker overnight. There’s a world of flavor hiding inside those bones, and a slow-simmering stock is far and away more nutritious than anything you could pour out of a can or carton. Plus, this fulfills one of my grandma’s golden rules: waste nothing. If you aren’t making gumbo, I hope you’ll make a stock from your turkey frame anyway, even if you just put it in containers to freeze for later.

Rule #4 – Use two kinds of meat

The options are wide open for gumbo—chicken, turkey, shrimp, crab, sausage, crawdads or whatever. But for the most interesting texture and flavor, I always use a combination of at least two meats. Turkey is obviously the main meat this time, and I’ve used the dark meat for its texture and flavor, plus a spicy leftover smoked sausage link. I got my hubby a humongous new smoker for his birthday this year, and he couldn’t see the sense in having empty rack space, so in addition to the spice-rubbed turkey, he smoked a large salmon fillet and about six flavored sausages. If you choose any of the seafood options for your gumbo, I recommend adding them at the very end to avoid overcooking them.

OK, and listen, if you want more mumbo jumbo on the gumbo, you can check out this link for more information than you could have ever hoped for.

Otherwise, grab an apron and let’s start cooking! My recipe makes approximately six hearty servings.


Ingredients

4 Tbsp. vegetable oil* (see notes)

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup each chopped onion, celery and bell pepper

4 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped

Salt and pepper, of course

1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper, cayenne or smoked paprika* (see notes)

2 cups leftover turkey, chopped into bite-sized pieces (dark meat preferred)

1 leftover smoked sausage, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 quart homemade turkey or chicken stock (instructions below)*

2 cups vegetable broth or chicken broth

1 bay leaf

1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 1/2 cups frozen sliced okra

Cooked brown rice for serving

*Notes

You can use vegetable, peanut or canola oil for the roux. Alternatively, if you like it spicy, use some amount of cayenne-infused olive oil, available at one of the specialty oil and vinegar shops that have popped up everywhere. I go half and half, canola and cayenne olive oil, and this combination delivers enough heat that I will typically forego the optional red pepper flakes. Note that the cayenne oil has a deep orange color, so you’ll want to consider that in determining when the roux is ready. For clear oil, a caramel color roux is dark enough. When using cayenne-infused oil, let it develop until it reaches a deep amber shade.

Your heat preference will dictate how much (or which kind) of optional hot pepper you should add to your gumbo. Remember that you can always shake some Frank’s RedHot sauce onto the gumbo at serving time. This is a terrific option when different members of the household have a different threshold for heat.

If you don’t have a leftover turkey carcass, or the time or patience to make homemade stock, substitute equal amount of chicken bone broth. You’ll find cartons of this in the soup aisle of a well-stocked supermarket.

This is some serious comfort food for a chilly December night!

Instructions

The visual walk-through will probably do it for you, but if you’d like written instructions, keep scrolling. I’ve listed them below, along with a downloadable version for your recipe files. First, build the roux, and remember to take your time.


Homemade turkey stock (make a day ahead)

1 turkey frame, picked clean of useful meat

1 medium onion, rough-chopped (use the ends, too)

4 ribs celery, cleaned and cut up into chunks (leafy ends are OK, too)

4 cloves fresh garlic, crushed

1 tsp. black peppercorns

2 bay leaves

Enough water to mostly cover the turkey frame

Combine all ingredients in a heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and simmer several hours, until the bones are stripped clean and the stock is a rich, golden color. Remove and discard solids and strain stock into a large glass bowl or pitcher. Cool completely, then cover and refrigerate overnight. When the stock is fully chilled, it will be easy to scrape off excess grease, which will be congealed at the top. You’ll want to keep a small amount of the grease, though, for added flavor in your gumbo.

Instructions for gumbo

  1. Place a large, heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat. Add oil. Add flour and whisk until bubbly, then reduce heat to the lowest setting. Allow roux to develop for about an hour, whisking or stirring occasionally. When the color resembles caramel (or dark amber, if using a cayenne oil), proceed to the next step.
  2. Increase heat to medium and add the trinity. Stir to combine, season with salt, pepper and optional hot pepper, then add the garlic, cooking and stirring for about 10 minutes, until vegetables are softened and mixture feels “loosened up” a bit.
  3. Add cut-up turkey and sausage and stir to coat them in the roux. Add the turkey stock, a little at a time, stirring in between. Add vegetable broth, dried thyme leaves and bay leaf. Reduce heat to low and simmer for about two hours.
  4. Add frozen okra and stir to blend it into the stew. Increase heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 – 30 minutes, until okra is no longer bright green, and tender to your liking.

Serve gumbo over hot cooked brown rice. Spike it with Frank’s RedHot sauce if you’d like.

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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.