Scallion-Sriracha Salmon Cakes

Most every night for the past few months, I have awakened around 3 a.m., for no apparent reason. My insomnia usually lasts at least an hour and a half, during which time I ponder all of the good and evil in the world, or play mindless word games on my smartphone, or venture into the dark corners of our house to find and snuggle our sleeping pets. I’d like to make one suggestion for others who have experienced this phenomenon of waking at 3 a.m.—do not pick up your phone and begin Googling possible causes for said awakenings. The search results are grim, and in a matter of moments, you will begin to question everything from your diet (am I eating sugar too close to bedtime?) to your spiritual condition (what do you mean, exactly, by ‘witching hour?’). My therapist believes I am probably flummoxed over a combination of things, related mostly to work-from-home stress and general pandemic fatigue. Whatever the case, I’m exhausted. Every once in a while though, these sleep interruptions result in something good, and this recipe is a fine example of that.

Out of the blue two weeks ago, I awakened with a start and asked myself why I had never made fish cakes with sriracha and scallions. You might be thinking this is a bizarre question to ask oneself so urgently at 3 in the freakin’ morning, and you’d be correct, but this is my life now. Once I go down that rabbit hole, it isn’t long before I begin dreaming up ideas of just how such a dream dish should be completed, right down to the garnish. Sometimes I pick up my phone and make record of my ideas—and that’s a smart thing, because if I don’t jot it down, my next successful 40 winks may wipe it clean out of my brain. From this particular wide-awake culinary epiphany, I made these exact notes, because I didn’t want to forget what sounded like a great recipe.

I mean, isn’t this the kind of thing that wakes everyone up at 3 a.m.??

It took me a few days to round up my ingredients, and when I got down to it last week, with a few tweaks to my original plan, the result was delicious! These scallion-sriracha salmon cakes were light and fresh, low calorie and easy as could be to make, with just enough heat to make your tongue tingle. I modeled the ratio of ingredients after my favorite crab cake recipe, using only enough mayonnaise and panko crumbs to hold the flaky salmon together with the finely minced garlic and red bell pepper. A little extra panko on the outside before pan frying gave the cakes a terrific crispiness to offset the moist and tender interior.

And the flavor was exactly as I dreamed.

Crispy coating, tender inside, spicy and delicious; these turned out just as I imagined!

Ingredients
Makes 2 servings

6 oz. fresh salmon portion (skinless)

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1 Tbsp. sriracha

1/2 tsp. fish sauce* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. minced red bell pepper

2 scallions, thinly sliced (divided)

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 beaten egg

A few shakes Asian Reds hot pepper flakes*

1/4 cup panko crumbs, plus extra for shaping cakes

2 Tbsp. peanut oil

*Notes

Fish sauce is a pungent, fermented condiment found in the Asian section of most supermarkets. If you cannot find it, substitute with soy sauce.

The Asian Reds hot pepper flakes are a specialty item that popped up a while back in my hubby’s Facebook feed, and we could not resist ordering a variety of products from this company, though we have no financial incentive from doing so. I like this pepper seasoning because it includes the hard-to-find varieties of pepper that play so well with other Asian flavors, including the sriracha in this recipe. If you don’t want to spring for them, substitute any crushed red pepper flakes, or omit them for less heat.

We are loving these Asian Reds pepper flakes. They offer a different variety of hot pepper flavors that is a perfect highlight with other Asian ingredients.

Instructions

Here we go with pictures, and keep scrolling for written steps and a downloadable copy for your recipe files!

  1. Heat a small, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Pan steam or lightly sauté salmon fillet until just flaky (better slightly underdone than overdone). Cool then refrigerate several hours or overnight.
  2. Combine mayo with sriracha and fish sauce; measure out about 3 Tbsp. for finishing the cakes at serving. I put the reserved portion into a zip-top snack bag (sort of a makeshift piping bag).
  3. Add half of the chopped scallions, red pepper, garlic and spicy Asian Reds seasoning to remaining mayo mixture. Fold in beaten egg and panko crumbs.
  4. Flake fish into large-ish pieces and gently fold into mayo mixture, taking care not to break up the fish pieces too much. Sprinkle additional panko crumbs into your hand and shape mixture into four patties, about the size of hockey pucks, with a light coating of panko on both sides. Place each fish cake onto a parchment lined plate or small baking sheet.
  5. Cover the fish cakes with plastic wrap and chill at least two hours. This gives the mixture time to firm up, and the panko will absorb some of the moisture to better bind the cakes.
  6. Heat peanut oil in a medium, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Cook salmon cakes 3 or 4 minutes per side, until browned and crisp. Serve over rice with your favorite vegetables, top salmon cakes with reserved sriracha mayo drizzle and reserved scallion slices.

If you can dream it, you can make it. 😀

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Salmon with Fennel & White Beans

There has been a fresh and flavorful shift in our kitchen over the past couple of weeks, and it feels so right! My husband, Les, and I have been eating healthier after the holidays, not for keeping resolutions (we don’t bother with those), but out of simple desire to care for our bodies better after a season of splurging. Seafood has been the star of this menu reboot, and I’ve brought back into rotation one of my favorite all-time recipes, a seared fillet of fish rested on a mélange of tender sautéed fennel with creamy cannellini beans and sweet tomatoes.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll confess right here that I actually did not use salmon this time, but steelhead trout. This is a sweet and creamy fish, similar in texture (and appearance) to a farm-raised salmon, and when I can get my hands on steelhead trout, I love to swap it into favorite salmon recipes, including the salmon in phyllo dish that I shared in December. But steelhead trout isn’t always easy to find, especially while adhering to the best practice standards set by the Marine Stewardship Council (sustainability means a lot to me). The dish is every bit as delicious when made with your favorite salmon, which is usually much easier to find.

This dish is satisfying, healthful and full of flavor!

It looks and tastes more extravagant than it is, and although I’ve named it “fish with fennel,” it would be better described as fennel with fish, given that the fennel shows up in three different forms—the seeds are ground to a powder for crusting on the fillets, the vegetable is caramelized in the mélange beneath the fish, and the fronds are chopped and sprinkled on top.


Would it surprise you to know that you can have this meal on the table in about 35 minutes, start to finish? It’s true. And Les, who is practically a living nutritional calculator, announced after cleaning his plate that our meal probably checked in at fewer than 400 calories per serving, which is not too shabby for such a flavorful, satisfying meal.

Ingredients

So few ingredients, yet so much flavor!

2 portions salmon*, skin removed (see notes)

1 tsp. fennel seed, ground to a rough powder

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 bulb fennel, sliced* (should measure about 1 cup)

1 cup chopped fresh tomatoes (or canned, drained well)

1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth + 2 Tbsp. dry white wine* (or all vegetable broth)

15 oz. can cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained and rinsed

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

2 Tbsp. fennel fronds, chopped or minced


*Notes

Any type of salmon (wild sockeye, king, coho, etc.) works well in this recipe, but you might also consider swapping in another fish, such as arctic char or steelhead trout, which I used. If you are not comfortable removing the skin yourself, ask the seafood clerk to do it for you. Learn this task, and you’ll be unstoppable!

Fennel is a less common vegetable, one that you may have passed over in the supermarket for something more recognizable. It resembles something between celery and bok choy, but tastes nothing like either. It is crunchy with a slightly licorice flavor, and it pairs beautifully with all kinds of fish, especially when sautéed or stewed. The seed part of fennel might be more familiar to you. It’s the flavor that makes Italian sausage taste Italian.

If you use wine to deglaze the skillet, make it a dry one, such as pinot grigio. Alternatively, I frequently reach for dry vermouth, given that I always have a bottle open in the fridge. If you prefer to not use wine, just add another splash of vegetable broth, no problem.


Instructions


  1. Using a mortar and pestle or electric spice grinder, crush the fennel seeds to a rough powder. Don’t have either? Try putting the seeds into a bag and use a rolling pin to crush them. Season the fish fillets with kosher salt and pepper, then sprinkle the fennel powder onto both sides of the fillets and press to fully adhere it.
  2. Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil. When oil is hot and shimmery (but not smoking), lay fish fillets into pan. Cook about two minutes, then carefully turn fillets to cook the other side another two minutes. Transfer fish to a small plate and keep warm. I usually slip it into the microwave while I make the mélange.
  3. Add fennel pieces to the skillet. Season with salt and pepper. Sauté, tossing occasionally, until fennel is caramelized and tender, about five minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes, then broth, plus wine. Stir until combined and liquid is simmering.
  5. Add beans and mustard. Toss to combine, reduce heat to low.
  6. Return fish to the pan, resting the fillets on top of the mixture. Cover and simmer on low for about 8 minutes, which is just about enough time to set the table and chop the fennel fronds.
  7. Plate the meal, with fish fillet resting on top of the fennel-bean mixture. Sprinkle the chopped fennel fronds on top and serve.

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If you’re hungry for more seafood, check out these easy recipes from the Comfort du Jour archives.


Scampi with Asparagus

It happens every time. The start of a new year is filled with good intentions, as everyone makes their resolutions to get fit, lose weight, improve their health. This is the reason for all the TV ads for gym memberships, weight loss products and home exercise equipment. It isn’t a terrible idea, of course, but there are simpler (and more sustainable) things we can do to get back into better habits, and most of them begin in the kitchen.

Along with many other people at the end of holiday indulging, I’m tired of so much rich food and find myself aching for fresher, lighter fare. After the heavy flavors of Thanksgiving dishes, it was spicy that I craved. But after the double whammy of Christmas and New Year’s, and all the sweets and booze that came with them, I just want to eat something—anything—fresh. Oh, and easy would be nice, too!

That’s where this recipe comes in, and there’s plenty to love about it. The dish is light and lemony, with big, juicy shrimp and bright, barely-crunchy asparagus. Piled high on a bed of al dente pasta, it looks like it came from a restaurant kitchen, and it tastes like fresh air after all the decadence we’ve plated in this house over the past six weeks.

You don’t have to go to a restaurant for a beautiful, tasty seafood dish. This one is easy to make at home!

Scampi is a simple dish to make, and the main thing to embrace is patience. You will cook the garlic slowly in olive oil over low heat, which allows it to essentially poach rather than sauté. This low and slow approach leads to the soft, mellow garlic flavor that is distinctive in scampi. And yes, it is a fair amount of oil, but remember that extra virgin olive oil is monounsaturated—what nutritionists call “good fat.” The meal will satisfy, and there are health benefits to boot. Sounds good to me!

If you don’t care for asparagus, sub in another crisp green vegetable, maybe some sugar snap peas or fresh broccolini. Or skip the sauteed veggie and serve the scampi alongside a salad. After the holidays, you deserve whatever fresh flavors suit your craving. Make it your own.

Serves: 2
Time to make it: About 35 minutes

Ingredients

2/3 pound fresh or frozen (uncooked) shrimp, 16-20 count* (see notes)

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

5 cloves fresh garlic, chopped

1/2 medium sweet onion, halved and sliced in crescent moon shapes

1/2 pound fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces

A few shakes crushed red pepper flakes, if you like it spicy

Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus the zest

2 portions linguine or angel hair pasta

A few shakes of parm-romano blend cheese, for serving

Five cloves is a lot of garlic for two dinner portions, but the slow simmer mellows the flavor. Cut the onions and asparagus into similar sized pieces.

*Notes

The “count” on shrimp refers to its size, and represents the average number of shrimp per pound. The higher the number, the smaller the shrimp. I have no problem with using frozen shrimp, especially because supermarkets often receive the shrimp frozen anyway. For many reasons, including food safety, fair trade and human rights, I always purchase shrimp harvested in the U.S., and my preference is white gulf shrimp. It’s sweet and juicy, whereas some other types of shrimp can be sharp and briny. Check with your seafood department for flavor recommendations, and whatever you purchase, be sure to thoroughly clean and de-vein it (instructions for this at the end of the post).


Instructions

  1. Place a large, non-stick skillet over low heat. Add olive oil and garlic (plus the red pepper, if using) and leave it alone. When the oil heats very slowly, the garlic gets softer and more mellow, which leads to the flavor we all know in scampi. Rush this step and the garlic will burn, which is definitely not delicious. Expect this low, slow cooking to take about 20 minutes.
  2. Thaw the shrimp (if frozen), and then peel and de-vein each one. If you have never done this before, it’s easy but extremely important, and I’ve provided some images at the end of the post to walk you through it. Removing the peel is pretty simple. Next, use a sharp paring knife to make a shallow cut down the outside curved part of the shrimp, revealing a dark stringy thing. I hate to tell you, but this isn’t actually a vein—it’s a digestive tract. Disgusting, but important to know. Slip the sharp tip of the knife underneath this nasty thing and pull it out. Lay the cleaned shrimp on layers of paper towel and set aside for now. If working ahead, cover and refrigerate.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to boil for cooking the pasta. Season it generously with kosher salt and (once boiling) add the pasta, stirring to prevent sticking. Cook until al dente, according to directions on the pasta box. While this is underway, continue with the recipe below.
  4. After the garlic has poached about 20 minutes, turn the skillet heat up to medium. When oil begins to bubble around the garlic, add the onions and asparagus and sauté 5 to 7 minutes, until the onions are translucent and the asparagus is slightly softened but still bright green.
  5. Move the veggies to the outer edges of the skillet and arrange the cleaned shrimp in the center. Cook only long enough for the bottom of the shrimp to become pink and opaque.
  6. Turn the shrimp, season the whole skillet with salt and pepper, and add in the lemon zest. Squeeze the lemon half over the mixture and continue to cook until the second side of the shrimp is cooked. Move all the skillet ingredients to the outer edges.
  7. Using tongs, move the cooked pasta directly to the center of the skillet and swirl it around to coat it with the flavors of the skillet.
  8. Arrange the pasta on serving plates or bowls, hit it with a little parm-romano blend, if you’d like, and top with veggies and shrimp.

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Here’s the down and dirty on de-veining

For goodness sake, do not skip this important step. As noted above, the “vein” in the outer curve of shrimp is actually a digestive tract, and the gunk inside is what’s left of the critter’s most recent meal (yuck). Food safety experts haven’t expressed serious concerns about eating it, but if it grosses you out (as it does me), grab a sharp paring knife and get that thing outta there!


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.

Chicken Caesar Salad (on the grill)

We must be headed into summer, because I can hardly tear myself away from grilled food ideas. I’m dreaming about classic summer favorites, but I’m also having fun imagining new ways to enjoy fruit, vegetables, pizza and who knows what else on the grill. One thing you can expect from me in the coming weeks is a grilled watermelon gazpacho. True story, I woke up thinking about it the other day. After a bunch of rainy days and weekends, we’ve finally eased into some nicer days, and cooking outside is the best part of that!

Most of the time, mentions of grilling conjures images of burgers and ribs and heavy smoky things. But I’ve definitely been feeling it more for freshness lately, and craving lighter foods that will help me feel less sluggish after so many weeks of “comfort food,” Zoom happy hours and going absolutely nowhere.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be planning an expansion of our patio and some other embellishments to help make it even more inviting. And hopefully one day soon (or at least not too far off), we will be able to share the space with friends more than current circumstances allow.

Our sweet little patio is our safe haven right now.

For now, we’re thankful to have comfy patio chairs, a private backyard, and a great Char-Broil gas grill, and tonight we’re cooking up a grilled chicken Caesar. Not just grilled chicken on the Caesar, mind you—more than that, the Caesar will be grilled as well. If you have not yet enjoyed grilled romaine, it’s such a treat, and yet so, so simple. It’s basically a poster child for Comfort du Jour—a familiar comfortable food, but with a fun and simple twist to elevate your happy. Let’s get cooking!

Recipe serves 2.

Ingredients

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (preferably free range)

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

Juice of half a lemon

1 tsp. prepared Dijon mustard

1 tsp. garlic pepper seasoning*

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 romaine heart (the tender inside part of romaine lettuce)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 Tbsp. bottled Caesar dressing (the simpler, the better)

4 anchovy fillets

Freshly shaved parmesan or pecorino romano cheese for serving

*Notes

Check your brand of garlic pepper seasoning for salt content, and adjust your marinade ingredients to taste. We have McCormick brand, and the salt is just right. If yours is salt-free, you’ll probably want to add about 1/4 tsp. salt along with it, or season the chicken with salt before you add the marinade.

In our house, we’re careful to avoid a lot of highly processed ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup and just about any version of soybean oil (it has no nutritional value and is usually genetically modified). We like the brand pictured in this post (Marzetti’s “Simply Dressed”) because it’s made with real ingredients and nothing that makes us cringe. Find it refrigerated in the produce section of your market.

Anchovies have gotten a bad rap, in my opinion. For a long time, I assumed I didn’t like anchovies because other people didn’t like them. But in small amounts, and paired with the right things, they add a fantastic savory pop to a dish. If you haven’t tried them lately, give them a shot in this recipe!

Instructions

Pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels and set aside while you prepare the simple grilling marinade.

In a small bowl, combine red wine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon and garlic pepper seasoning. Drizzle in olive oil in a slow and steady stream, whisking constantly to incorporate and emulsify. Pour the marinade over the chicken breasts in a covered glass dish or a zip top plastic bag. Put in the fridge until about 30 minutes before grilling.

Next, prep the romaine for grilling by trimming the end and any loose leaves, and cut in half lengthwise. Rinse under cold water, ruffling the leaves to let the water get inside the layers. Shake off excess water and place romaine halves, cut-side down, on a plate lined with a double layer of paper towels. Lay a damp paper towel over the top and put the plate in the fridge for several hours. The water will continue to drain from the cut leaves, and the romaine will get nice and crunchy during its chill time.

I always rinse with cold running water, and I “fluff” the leaves to let the water work all the way through.

Preheat your grill or grilling pan to about 450° F. The chicken should rest at room temperature about 30 minutes. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it helps the chicken cook more evenly. Reduce the temperature to about 350° and grill the chicken until it’s nicely charred on the outside and the juices run clear. At this point in the recipe, I usually bid adieu to my husband, Les, who handles most of our outdoor cooking. He’ll tend the chicken while he sips on a cold one and catches up with his Facebook feed. I have my own business to tend—the dressing.

Straight honest truth, if you’ve ever had authentic, scratch-made Caesar dressing, you know that there simply is no equal. The lemon, egg, anchovy and garlic create a perfect harmony that literally is the Caesar salad. Without it, you have basically a pile of romaine. But on a busy weeknight, who has time to coddle eggs? Me neither. What we can do instead is elevate a store bought “Caesar” dressing (I’ve yet to find one that has all the right stuff) with the addition of a couple of simple ingredients.

Homemade Caesar dressing is the absolute bomb.
But this is my simple “cheat” to add pizzazz to a store-bought dressing.

Don’t start making faces now. Anchovies are surprisingly delicious if you don’t overdo it, and we definitely won’t here. I’m only using a few fillets of these salty little fishes, and they will add a whole new layer of flavor to my otherwise “OK” dressing.

Chop them into small pieces (so you don’t get too much in any single bite), then stir or whisk them into the Caesar dressing. If the dressing seems a little thick, also pour in a little of the oil packed with the anchovies. Give it a quick taste—if it’s too salty, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to tone it down. Grind some fresh black pepper into it for a little more bite. This is your salad, so make it work for your taste.

Pull the romaine from the fridge and move it to the next step by drizzling good quality extra virgin olive oil over the cut side. Allow the oil to trickle down between the leaves a little, but don’t drench it. Season the halves with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, then take it out to the grill.

When the chicken is nearly finished, place the romaine halves directly on the grill, cut side down. And leave it. The first time I made grilled romaine, this felt so strange—putting delicate lettuce on the grill? But it’s really an incredible difference it makes in the salad, and I look forward to grilling season for things just like this. Obviously, we can eat salad all year, but in our winter months, it isn’t always practical to fire up the grill. For sure, my hubby isn’t gonna stand out there in 20° weather. Especially in the dark (which is usually is at dinner time during winter). It is, of course, possible to do this on an indoor grill pan, but there’s something more special about it when it’s cooked outside.

When the romaine has a nice amount of caramelization on the cut side (you decide when it reaches that point), turn over the halves and allow the other side to grill for a minute or two.

To serve, rest the chicken breasts then slice into crosswise strips. Serve alongside the romaine half, drizzling both with the jazzed-up Caesar dressing and a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese. If you prefer, chop the grilled romaine as well, and toss it together with the chicken and dressing, then divide on two plates and top with shredded cheese.

Enjoy!

A good drizzle of our “spiked” Caesar dressing, and freshly grated parm. Dinner is served!

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Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict

The most traditional food associated with the Kentucky Derby is a “hot brown sandwich,” classically prepared on toasted brioche, with roasted turkey, tomatoes, bacon and an elegant Mornay sauce. Like every recipe, there are thousands of versions out there. Mine is a little bit of a twist, in that I’ve transformed it into one of my favorite brunch options—a Benedict.

Here’s something else I want to share: last week, my aunt offered to send me some of the Depression glass and vintage dishes that my grandmother owned before she passed away last summer. The dishes arrived just in time for my Kentucky Derby preview party, and that makes this all the more special to me.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Straight up, I’ll admit this is kind of a fussy recipe, not for the faint of heart in the kitchen. But if you love the journey of delivering up a photo-worthy dish, I hope you’ll pour some champagne (or a Sparkly Britches Cucumber Lemonade) and give it a try. My egg poaching skills aren’t top-notch, but I’m going to teach you an easy way to “cheat” through it for an end result that’s every bit as pretty. And don’t let the “Mornay” scare you—honestly, it’s just a fancy way to say “cheese sauce,” and it’s very easy to make. Read through the instructions before you begin. This recipe makes two individual Benedicts.

Ingredients – The Mornay

1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. flour
½ cup milk
2 oz. grated or shredded Gruyere cheese (or substitute Swiss)
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg (or about 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg)

Ingredients – The Benedict

1 English muffin, fork split*
2 slices bacon, cut in half
1 Roma tomato, cut crosswise into 6 slices (about 1/4” thick)
2 Tbsp. chopped sweet onion
2 oz. very thinly sliced deli turkey—about 1/3 cup packed, cut into shredded pieces
2 large free-range eggs
Snipped fresh chives for garnish
Mornay sauce

*not a fan of English muffins? Throw caution to the wind and serve this on a fluffy Southern biscuit!

Tools

Small saucepan
Small whisk
Microplane (optional, for grating nutmeg)
Cheese grater (or use microplane)
Skillet for cooking bacon
Additional skillet (optional)
Spatula or turner
2 custard cups (or small teacups) for separating eggs
Small mesh strainer (optional)
Tea kettle
Small (7”) non-stick skillet with tight (preferably glass) lid
Additional small lid for keeping eggs warm

Instructions – The Mornay

In a small saucepan, heat 1 Tbsp. salted butter until melted and bubbly at edges. Add 1 Tbsp. flour and whisk to combine. Cook until mixture changes appearance and bubbles throughout. Add milk and whisk until fully blended. Keep over medium heat until bubbling and thickened. Grate fresh nutmeg into the sauce, then add grated gruyere cheese and a pinch of salt, whisking until smooth. Turn heat to warm setting while you prepare the other items.

Instructions – The Benedict

Cook the bacon strips to desired doneness and set aside on paper towels. Load your English muffin halves into the toaster so it’s ready to go at plating time.

Pour off bacon grease and wipe skillet clean to use for the next step. Or, heat a second cast-iron pan or griddle over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add about 1 Tbsp. olive oil and add onions, tossing to caramelize. Pile the onions into the middle of the skillet, and place the tomato slices around the outside. Cook the tomatoes until both sides show signs of caramelization (those gorgeous little charred spots is what you’re going for here).

I grilled the Roma tomato slices just long enough to warm and caramelize them. My husband snapped the pictures, and caught me here in mid-flip. Nice camera work, Babe!

Move the tomatoes to a plate or cutting board to avoid burning them. Add the chopped deli turkey to the onions and toss to warm and caramelize the edges. Turn off the heat and set aside for plating. It’s about to get fussy in here.

If you already have a preferred way to cook poached eggs—well, you’re my new hero! Although I completely love poached eggs on any restaurant brunch menu, making them at home wears my patience pretty thin. I’m going to show you my “cheat” method of steam-poaching eggs, and it works great for me. Do what works for you.

First, turn on the heat under your tea kettle, or run some very hot tap water into a measuring cup with a pour spout. You’re going to need hot water for this process.

Crack one egg into a custard cup. Place a small mesh strainer over a second cup and gently roll the egg into the strainer, allowing some of the egg white to drain through to the extra cup. An egg white actually has two distinct parts—the firm white, which is the pretty part, and the loose and runny white, which leaves unappealing shaggy edges on a poached or fried egg. We’re getting rid of the runny white part so the egg steams more cleanly. If you don’t have a mesh strainer, or if you’re not a stickler for a pretty plate, you can skip this step. But this is a fancy-schmancy brunch dish we’re making, so I’m doing it. Besides, I can burn more calories later if I have a sink full of dirty dishes.

Discard the runny white, then do the same with the second egg, keeping each egg in its own cup.

Drop the English muffin to toast it. Whisk the Mornay. Sip champagne. Breathe.

Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Carefully pour about 1/4 cup hot water directly into the empty skillet. It will sputter and perhaps even seem to boil, and this is good! Gently slip the first egg onto the boiling water and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid. Allow the egg to cook for about 1 minute, and watch for a light film to form over the yolk. With a rubber spatula or wide spoon, gently remove the egg to a plate lined with a paper towel. Cover with another lid to keep it warm while you prepare the second egg.

Plating:

Place a small spoonful of the Mornay in the center of each serving plate, to help keep the muffins from sliding around. Next, smear about 1 Tbsp. of sauce over the top of each toasted muffin half, then top each with the turkey-onion mixture, the tomato slices, a generous drape of Mornay sauce and a poached egg. Sprinkle with snipped chives and top with the cooked bacon slices, placing them cross-wise for optimal image to impress your guest.

This Benedict looks fit for a millionaire! If you listen closely, you might be able to hear Gram say, “Well, isn’t that elegant?”

Perfect.

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Oil-poached Tomato & Zucchini Dinner

(A “zero-waste” recipe)

It’s only been three weeks since our state went into lockdown over the COVID-19 risks, but it sure seems like I’ve been rationing fresh food items a lot longer than that. We’ve managed to only do our grocery runs about once every 10 to 14 days since the middle of March, when the walls first started to close in. And the consequences of our few-and-far-between trips became evident a few nights ago when I reached for the “brand-new” package of grape tomatoes I’d purchased, and found this:

Definitely not delicious.

If that isn’t disappointing enough, imagine my horror when I peeked into the crisper drawer to find another so-called fresh item to be way past its prime.

This is just pitiful.

I know. Kind of like those pics all over Instagram of celebrities without their makeup. Our produce drawer has been so jam-packed these past weeks, it has become a real challenge to keep up with the fresh ingredients we’re buying in greater quantity than usual. This discovery of wrinkly tomatoes and shriveled zucchini wrecked my plan for making ratatouille, one of my very favorite vegetable-centered dishes. I’m not even going to show you a picture of the eggplant. It’s rough, people.

So, a change of plans, but this need not be a disaster. I’ve been here before with the tomatoes and knew I could save them. With a little patience and the magic of slow poaching in some good quality olive oil, you can do it, too. We’re going to turn these sad little misfit vegetables into something delicious. This recipe serves two.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Ingredients:

One pint really wrinkled baby tomatoes (of course, fresh is good, also!)
1/2 cup chopped onion (I like sweet ones, but use whatever you have)
3 cloves fresh garlic, chopped
1/4 cup good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp. Italian blend herb seasoning
About 1 1/2 cups leftover cooked chicken (shredded scraps from a rotisserie market chicken is perfect)
1 medium shriveled-up zucchini (or fresh, if you must)
Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Parm-Romano cheese for serving

Instructions:

First things first—we need to identify any tomatoes that truly shouldn’t be used. If they are wrinkled and a bit withered, they’re OK. Soft, oozing or moldy? Sorry fellas, you’ve been chopped.

Ick. At least I was able to salvage most of the tomatoes.

Rinse the tomatoes that remain and set them aside on a paper towel to absorb the excess water. Place a large, non-stick skillet over very low heat and add the full amount of olive oil. It’s going to seem like a lot, but it’s all good.

Add the onions, garlic and baby tomatoes to the olive oil and tilt the pan around to “roll” and coat the tomatoes in the oil. Add the Italian herbs, and season with sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Keep the heat to a bare minimum. This super-slow pace might feel a little awkward if you are accustomed to sautéing in oil. We’re doing something else—rehydrating the tomatoes should not be rushed, and I can’t emphasize enough that your heat should be at the lowest setting your burner allows. You don’t want to see or hear any sizzling at all; if you do, it’s too hot. The pictures in this slideshow are time-stamped, and the captions will help explain how this should progress:

Pretty awesome, right? And you wouldn’t believe the depth of aroma and flavor the olive oil is able to extract from those sad little tomatoes. Actually, it’s more than that; studies have shown that cooking tomatoes in oil releases more of their lycopene, an antioxidant linked to heart health and protection against certain types of cancer. And to think, we almost threw them away!

If you only had the tomatoes, you could stop right here, toss this sauce with some freshly cooked pasta and call it dinner (just add a sprinkle of parmesan and a glass of wine). But today is also the deadline for that pitiful zucchini, so I’m going to take this a step further and turn the squash into “noodles.”

One day soon, I’ll share my honest opinion about the different spiralizers I’ve tried. They definitely are not created equal, and although you’d think the expensive ones would be the best, I usually prefer this little gadget—called a “Vegetti”—that I picked up for about $6 at TJMaxx (a couple years ago—you know, when things were open).

It has two sides: one for thick spirals and one for thin. I’m using the thick side today, and as you can see, after twisting the zucchini through it, there’s very little waste. Just the butt ends and these cute little swirly buttons. Lucky for me, even these will not be wasted because our dog, Nilla, is certifiably crazy about vegetables. Sweet girl has such patience.

We’re now in the homestretch, where we will see the final transformation of too-far-gone vegetables turned into a delicious and healthful, zero-waste meal. I’m scattering my leftover chicken pieces over the top of my luscious poached tomato sauce, then the zucchini noodles, salt and pepper, and covering it with a lid to heat it through.

Turn up the heat about two notches to medium, set the table and pour the wine. By then, this one-skillet meal will be ready to be tossed and plated. Enjoy!


Creamy Tomato Bisque

There’s a reason “tomato bisque” is on so many restaurants’ menus. It’s a classic comfort food, and so simple to make from regular pantry ingredients you’ll wonder why you ever settled for the stuff in a can. My version includes a bit of red bell pepper and carrot for a touch of extra flavor and sweetness. This is perfect on a chilly day or rainy night, and we love to pair it with a tuna on homemade rye or classic grilled cheese sandwich.



Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper

1 medium onion, chopped (I like sweet onions, but yellow works well here, too)

1/2 medium red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1 medium carrot, peeled and diced

3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 tsp. Italian herb seasoning (or some combination of oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary)

A pinch of crushed red pepper

28 oz. can peeled plum tomatoes (San Marzano, if possible)

1/2 cup vegetable broth or 3/4 cup V-8 juice

1/4 cup whole milk, half-n-half or heavy cream (omit or substitute canned coconut milk if vegan)

Freshly grated parm-romano cheese blend (omit for vegan) and chopped parsley or basil for serving

Tools

cutting board and knife, heavy-bottomed tall pot, flat wooden utensil or spoon, immersion blender*


Let’s Get Cooking!


Place a deep, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil (about 2 to 3 tablespoons). When oil begins to shimmer, add onion, pepper and carrot all at once. Salt and pepper to taste, then stir and cook until all begin to soften. Add chopped garlic and seasoning blend, stir and cook another minute or two until onions seem slightly translucent.

Add the plum tomatoes, using your hand to squeeze each tomato into the pot. This helps release the juices and gives them a head start on breaking up in the pot. Squeeze slowly and gently so you don’t wear it! Add all the tomatoes plus all remaining liquid from the can, but discard any basil leaves that may be in the can. Add broth or juice, stir to mix evenly and bring just to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered on medium-low about 30 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent burning. Adjust seasoning to taste.

When mixture appears less chunky and somewhat reduced, turn off heat and use an immersion blender to puree until mixture is as smooth as you like. Simmer on low another few minutes to allow air bubbles to disperse and soup to reduce to your preferred thickness. If it’s too thick, stir in a bit more vegetable broth. Remove from heat and swirl in milk or substitute. Ladle into bowls and swirl a drizzle of olive oil over the top of the soup and sprinkle with parm-romano cheese and fresh chopped herbs as you like.

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Dinner is served. We love it with a sourdough grilled cheese, but any kind of sandwich is a good side.

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No-Fuss Mushroom and Spinach Omelet

I like this style of omelet because it’s quick and simple, and it doesn’t require removing the extras from the pan and then stuffing them back in. Your “fillings” will be cooked into the outside of the omelet, with melty gooey cheese layered inside. This recipe is super flexible, too! You can add or substitute leftover vegetables of any kind if you don’t have spinach and mushrooms on hand—peppers, kale, broccoli, asparagus or whatever is taking up space in the fridge. If they’re already cooked, just chop into smallish pieces and toss them in the pan long enough to warm them and proceed with the recipe from there. As with most my recipes, I rely on formula and technique more than the ingredients. So, let’s talk about that:

How do you make an omelet fluffy?

Whisking cold water (not milk!) into the eggs just before cooking them gives a nice airy lift to the omelet. The scientific upshot is that the tiny water droplets evaporate quickly in the heat of the pan, creating airy pockets inside the egg mixture. If you want even more fluff, separate the eggs before you begin (this works best when they’re cold) and whip the whites into a soft foam (this works best at room temperature). Fold this into the rest of your egg mixture just before pouring into the hot pan.

Which cheese melts best for an omelet?

Good melting cheeses include Monterey jack, cheddar, Colby, Muenster, Havarti, Gouda and gruyere. Hard or crumbly cheeses such as feta, chevre and parmesan will add tons of flavor; just don’t expect gooey goodness from them, as they pretty much hold their shape when warmed. Whenever possible, grate your cheese from a block. The packaged pre-shredded cheeses are coated to prevent sticking in the bag, and this also prevents them from melting well.

Do you need a special pan for an omelet?

Years ago, my mom had one of those hinged, fold-over pans “designed for omelets,” but this is absolutely not necessary. It didn’t produce a fabulous omelet and mostly just made a mess. My go-to pan for omelets is a good non-stick skillet with curved sides. The shape and coating makes it easier to slide your spatula underneath the set egg mixture for folding and serving. If your skillet is not coated, swirl in a little extra oil just before adding the eggs, to guard against sticking.

This recipe is a delicious way to work in an extra serving of vegetables and works especially well as “breakfast for dinner.” Three eggs make just the right size for my husband and me to share, but we are not big eaters at breakfast. Feel free to throw in a fourth egg with no other adjustment needed.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper

1 thick slice of onion, finely chopped (we like sweet onions, but red or yellow ones are fine)

3 to 4 mushrooms, cleaned and sliced (cremini is my go-to, but white button or shiitake would also work)

Big handful of fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped and tough stems removed

3 large eggs, room temperature

About 1/2 tsp. prepared Dijon mustard (or hot sauce for a spicier twist)

Splash of cold water

1/3 cup freshly shredded cheese (or less if using more pungent cheese, such as Parmesan or feta)

Tools

Get Cooking!

Place a 10 inch non-stick skillet over medium heat and add a generous swirl of olive oil.

When you notice the oil beginning to shimmer and flowing easily around the pan, add your chopped onions. Give them a stir and cook until they are just soft but not quite browning, about 2 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and toss them around with your wooden utensil to be sure they get lightly sautéed on both sides. Add the chopped baby spinach leaves and stir until wilted and noticeably reduced, but still bright green. Salt and pepper to taste.

While the veggies are doing their thing, crack your eggs into a large measuring cup, add Dijon mustard (or hot sauce) and whisk briskly until lightly foamy. Add a splash of cold water – about 1 Tablespoon – and whisk again until light and foamy. You want lots of bubbles in this mixture, so whip it…whip it good!

Spread out the sautéed veggie mixture evenly in your pan. Slowly pour the eggs around the outer edge of the mixture, encircling your veggie ingredients, then pour gently to “fill in” and cover the entire mixture. Again, salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook about 2 or 3 minutes, or until the egg mixture looks set about one half inch around the edges but still wet and somewhat loose in the center.

Sprinkle shredded cheese over the entire mixture, turn off the burner and place a cover over the pan, allowing trapped heat and steam to finish cooking the eggs and melting the cheese into them. This will take about 3 minutes. Using a wide silicone spatula, fold in half. Or for a slimmer omelet, fold one third toward the center, then fold the other side over the top of that, as if folding a letter. Carefully cut the omelet in half crosswise to share the other half with your other half, and enjoy!

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