Spooky Stuffed Peppers

Before the kiddos head out for trick or treating on Monday night, parents hope that they have a decent, balanced meal in their little bellies. You know, so that they aren’t just chowing down on sugar from all those Snickers, Reeses and Skittles that they get in their trick-or-treat bags.

In my limited experience with children, I learned one lesson loud and clear—a simple way to get kids interested in eating good-for-them food is to make it FUN.


With a little imagination, you can turn an ordinary bell pepper into a fun Halloween supper, and you can fill it with whatever your kids (or grandkids, great-grandkids, neighbor kids, friends’ kids, etc.) like to eat. Mine are stuffed with cooked ground turkey in a Mexican-ish flavor profile—a combination of onions, green bell peppers, celery, garlic and Rotel tomatoes, spiffed up with chili powder and tomato paste—but there’s no reason you couldn’t change it up and make it Italian. Or Greek. Or vegan with a kale and quinoa kind of thing. Or any other combination you think the kids would like to eat. For the big kids at our house (that would be me and my husband), I went in big for veggies and lean protein.

Use any combination of vegetables that makes sense for the flavors you like.

You could use another color of bell pepper if you’d like, but the orange ones are good here, not only for their impersonation of a jack o’lantern, but also because hungry trick or treaters may be more receptive to their flavor, which is sweeter than a typical green bell pepper.

Choose peppers with a good stem, and peppers that will stand up on their own.

To prep the peppers, carefully slice the tops off, taking note of how far down the stem extends so that you keep the top of the pepper intact. Clean out the seeds and excess membranes, and then place the peppers, upside-down, into a glass baking dish with about one inch of water. Put the pepper tops in there, too, and microwave them on high for about five minutes. This will steam and soften the peppers so that they don’t need as much time in the oven after they are stuffed.

When they are cool enough to handle, use the top of a sharp paring knife to cut out triangle eyes and a nose into each bell pepper body. If you’re feeling extra creative, you could also cut a toothy smile into the peppers, too, but be careful because you don’t want the filling to seep out of its whole face.


Preheat the oven, with a rack in the center position. Heat a little olive oil in a skillet and sauté the vegetables until they are just softened. Remember to season with salt and pepper, and then add the spice seasonings to bloom their flavors. Crumble in the ground turkey, a little at a time, and toss to stir until no pink color remains. Add the Rotel and a little tomato paste to intensify the tomato flavor, and a pinch of dried Mexican oregano.


Spoon the filling into the peppers, lay a slice of sharp cheddar over the filling, and then reposition the pepper tops before sliding it into the oven. At this point, all the ingredients are fully cooked, so the peppers only need to be in the oven long enough to heat through, finish softening and melt the cheese.


Serve the peppers right away with a few spoonfuls of cooked rice, and get those kids costumed up for their night of fun!

Spooky Stuffed Peppers

  • Servings: 4 peppers
  • Difficulty: Average
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This is a fun way to feed the little ones something on the healthy side before they go trick-or-treating for all that candy. Mix and match ingredients based on what the kids like.


Ingredients

  • 4 orange bell peppers (choose them for shape and size, plus strong stems)
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 sweet onion, chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, trimmed and chopped
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp. salt-free seasoning (I used a combination of chili powder, cumin and paprika)
  • 1 lb. fresh ground turkey (or other lean ground meat)
  • 10 oz. can Rotel diced tomatoes (there are many heat levels; choose what’s right for you)
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • A pinch or two of dried oregano
  • 4 slices sharp cheddar or other favorite melting cheese
  • Brown rice, for serving

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F, with oven rack in center position.
  2. Wash the bell peppers. Carefully cut the tops off the peppers, low enough to keep the stems intact. Remove seeds and membranes and place the peppers upside down in a microwave-safe dish. Add about an inch of water to the dish and microwave on high for 5 minutes, or longer if needed until peppers are somewhat softened. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
  3. While the peppers are cooling, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add oil to the pan and sauté onions, green bell pepper and celery for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add garlic, salt and pepper, plus salt-free seasoning of your choice. Cook another minute.
  4. Crumble ground meat into the skillet, about half at a time so it doesn’t overcrowd the pan. When meat is no longer pink, add the Rotel tomatoes, tomato paste and dried oregano. Cook until mixture is bubbly, then turn off heat and cover the pan.
  5. Use a sharp paring knife to carefully cut out triangle eyes and noses in each of the bell peppers (toss the bits into the pan with the rest of the filling).
  6. Spoon the filling into the peppers. Arrange a slice of cheddar over each pepper, positioning the slices so that they will not melt to cover the eyes on the peppers. Replace the pepper tops and bake (uncovered) for 25 minutes, until heated through and cheese is melted. Serve immediately with brown rice.


Ratatouille Shakshuka

How is it possible that the simplest combination of ripe-at-the-same-time ingredients turns out to be such a mouthwatering flavor explosion, no matter how you put it together?

Any way you plate it, this is a great combo!

I never get tired of rearranging ratatouille—eggplant, zucchini, red bell pepper, onions and tomatoes—and this time, I married the classic Provencal stew with a classic Jewish breakfast dish, shakshuka.

The first time I heard of shakshuka was during a pre-wedding meeting with Rabbi Mark, who formerly led Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, where my then-fiancé, Les, is a member. When our ceremony-planning conversation took a detour toward food and cooking (as literally every conversation with me eventually does), Mark asked if I’d ever made shakshuka, the Middle Eastern dish that is a breakfast staple in many Jewish households. I was stumped because I had never even heard of this dish, let alone made it. But that changed quickly, and it has become an occasional favorite at our house.

Shakshuka is a humble and hearty, tomato-based skillet meal, and a great way to use up whatever other vegetables you have on hand, with eggs simmered right into the sauce. It is very similar to a dish the Italians call “eggs in purgatory.” I especially appreciate how simple it is to pull together when I have had a busy week with little time to plan a menu. Up until now, I have made it only with the spicy flavors that are traditional to the northern African region, where shakshuka originated—cumin, paprika, hot pepper, garlic and oregano.

But this time, I took the concept of shakshuka northward across the Mediterranean Sea, into the south of France, using Herbs de Provence alongside all the beloved vegetables of ratatouille. The result, as you can see, was awesome!

Served with a light sprinkle of Parm-Romano blend cheese at the table.

There was so much nourishing comfort in the stewed vegetables, which simmered long enough to become soft and melded, and the delicate herbs were just right. I’m already craving it again!

As with most recipes, it’s helpful to have all your ingredients chopped and ready before you begin. For any stew, I like to cut up the vegetables into roughly similar size. This ensures more even cooking, and also makes it possible to get a little bit of everything in each delicious bite. I used a large zucchini, a large “millionaire” eggplant (the slender, Japanese variety), half of a large onion, half of a huge red bell pepper and three fresh, red tomatoes from my garden. In addition to the fresh ingredients, you’ll need a 15 oz. can of tomato sauce, a splash of dry white wine (I used dry French vermouth), a pinch or two of Herbs de Provence, and up to six eggs.

We’re going to need a bigger pot!

That’s a lot of veggies! I made this version of shakshuka in a larger pot than usual because I knew that tossing all of these fresh vegetables in my go-to cast iron would be a serious challenge, and I wanted to avoid making a big mess. The ratatouille also needs to be stirred as it cooks, so be sure your cooking vessel can handle the volume of ingredients as well as the mixing requirement. Choose a pot that has a snug-fitting lid, as this will be important for simmering.

The width of the pot is what matters, so you’ll have plenty of room to place the eggs.

Begin by heating the pan over medium flame. Add oil and start sautéing the vegetables. Eggplant soaks up oil fast so I held that back until the peppers, onions and zucchini had a chance to soften. Remember to season each layer with a pinch of salt and pepper, not only for flavor, but also because salt helps to draw excess moisture from the vegetables as they cook. During this stage, also add a few pinches of Herbs de Provence, a French blend that includes any combination of thyme, savory, rosemary, marjoram and lavender. These are delicate herbs, but they do pack a fragrant punch, so start with a small amount and inch up to taste.


When the vegetables are visibly softened, add the fresh garden tomatoes and give it a stir. Add the tomato sauce and dry white wine. If I have used a canned ingredient, I usually swish the wine around in the empty can to rinse out the last bit of flavor. Another quick pinch of salt and pepper, and then reduce the heat, cover the pan and allow it to simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. The vegetables will continue to soften, melding the flavors together, but the sauce should not reduce too much. While it simmers, take the eggs out of the fridge; they will set in the shakshuka better if they are closer to room temperature.


When the ratatouille stew has become very soft, crack each egg into a ramekin dish for easy transfer to the shakshuka. This may seem unnecessary, but trust me when I tell you that it is no fun at all trying to fish out itty-bitty pieces of egg shell that went astray into a big saucy mixture. If anything goes sideways with your cracked eggs, you want it to happen in the ramekin, not in your beautiful recipe!

Give the stew a gentle stir, and then use the back of a large serving spoon to create a slight depression for each egg to rest. This doesn’t have to be perfect, and you only need a spot about 3 inches across for each egg. I had room for six eggs in my large pot, but I only used four because I knew the extras would not warm up well without overcooking. Better to add fresh eggs when you heat up the leftovers.

Cook as many eggs as you plan to serve initially. Make more eggs when you reheat the leftovers.

Slip an egg into each depression and give the shakshuka one final pinch of salt and pepper before covering the pot. Keep the flame set on low and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until the whites are set but the yolks still have a bit of jiggle to them.

I wish you could smell this! 😋

Scatter fresh, chopped herbs over the dish (I used fresh basil from the garden, but flat-leaf parsley would be nice, too), and serve immediately with a slice of crusty French bread. The best way to serve this dish is to use a wide, somewhat flat spoon to scoop underneath an egg, grabbing as much of the surrounding stew as possible at the same time. Sprinkle on a teaspoon or so of grated Parmesan for a big burst of umami flavor.


Ratatouille Shakshuka

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: average
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Choose a wide, covered pot for making your ratatouille, and prepare your workstation by chopping all vegetables before you begin.

Ingredients

  • 1 large zucchini, trimmed and chopped
  • 1/2 large sweet onion, chopped
  • 1/2 large (or 1 medium) red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1 large Japanese eggplant, chopped (or about 2 cups of alternate variety)
  • 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • Up to 1 tsp. Herbs de Provence (or Italian seasoning, if preferred)
  • 3 small, fresh tomatoes, chopped
  • 15 oz. can low-sodium tomato sauce
  • 2 Tbsp. dry white wine (or dry vermouth)
  • 6 large eggs* (see recipe note below)
  • Fresh basil or Italian parsley, for garnish

Note: If you wish, cook only the number of eggs you intend to serve initially. When you use the leftovers, fresh eggs will yield a better result at that time.

Directions

  1. Heat large pan over medium heat. Add olive oil and saute vegetables, beginning with only zucchini, onion and bell pepper. When the first vegetables begin to soften, add the eggplant and saute until all veggies are tender. Season with salt, pepper and Herbs de Provence.
  2. Add fresh tomatoes, tomato sauce and dry wine, stirring to combine evenly. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 15 to 20 minutes. Remove eggs from fridge during the simmer time.
  3. When vegetables are fulley softened, crack each egg into a ramekin cup for easy transfer into the pot. Use the back or a large serving spoon to make a depression for each egg. Slip the eggs into the depressions, season with salt and pepper and cover the pan.
  4. Cook over low heat about 8 minutes, until egg whites are set and yolks are still slightly jiggly. Serve immediately.


Quick & Easy Refried Bean Soup

This recipe was shared with me many years ago by a friend who had the craziest schedule I’d ever witnessed. When she wasn’t running full speed ahead with her two middle-schoolers—to dance classes, soccer practice, music lessons, birthday parties, etc.—she was leading a high school youth group, teaching aerobics classes, volunteering at church and befriending every newcomer to the neighborhood. Her door was always open to visitors, even during the hectic holidays, and she always seemed to have something tasty to nibble on when someone appeared unexpectedly.

She didn’t have what I would call a passion for cooking, and certainly not much time, but she was incredibly skilled at getting a healthful and satisfying meal on the table in no time flat. This soup is one example, and when I pulled it out of my old recipe box the other day, I thought, “of course.” This is not an all-day-simmer kind of soup; rather, it leverages the already developed flavors of two key ingredients—jarred salsa and canned refried beans. Add some fresh onions and bell pepper, some veggie broth and your choice of chili beans and dinner is served.

There’s plenty of hearty comfort in the bowl, with beans, onions and peppers. And your favorite salsa lends a flavor that defies the quickness of the recipe.

The soup is every bit as comforting as any other homemade soup, but only takes 20 minutes, start to finish, which just happens to be the exact amount of time you need to throw a batch of Jiffy corn muffins into the oven (they’re perfect on the side).

What could be easier after a hectic day of shopping and errands during the busy holiday season?


Simple pantry ingredients and a few easy things from the fridge.

Ingredients

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 bell pepper (any color), chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Cumin, salt and pepper

1 cup prepared salsa from a jar* (see notes)

2 cans beans (mix and match; pinto, black, kidney, navy are all good here)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable (or chicken) broth

1 can refried beans

Corn muffins for serving (optional, but yummy)


*Notes

Any kind of savory salsa will work here. It can be mild or spicy, green or red, thick or runny. If you have a can of Rotel tomatoes on hand, you could also substitute with that.


Instructions

  1. Get your corn muffins in the oven, if you’re making them. This soup can be made while they are baking.
  2. Drain and rinse the canned beans.
  3. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Saute onion and pepper until softened. Add garlic and saute another minute or two. Season with cumin, salt and pepper.
  4. Increase heat to medium-high. Add canned beans, salsa and broth, and stir to combine. When mixture begins to boil, reduce heat to medium. Stir in the can of refried beans, taking time to swirl and blend it into the broth. Adjust seasonings to taste. Simmer until ready to serve.


Tequila-Lime Chicken Tacos with Pineapple Pico

Once upon a time, a busy woman ran out of creative ideas for the package of chicken tenders she pulled from the freezer, and the only thing that could save her from a boring dinner was a spark of inspiration. The woman, of course, was me, and it happened on Friday. It happens more often than I’d like, truth be told.

Isn’t that a familiar tale? Even people who love to cook have creativity blocks, especially when pressed for time, and we all need a boost to pull out of a menu rut. If I had stuck with my ho-hum plan to fry the chicken tenders and plop them on a salad—well, it would have been edible, but uninspired. It certainly would not have been remarkable or interesting enough to share here on Comfort du Jour. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to check my email that morning before heading out for a full day of errands. Right there at the top of my inbox was a cheerful message from my West Coast blogging buddy, Michelle, and her casual sharing of a personal story about “tequila-lime chicken” arrived just in time to twist this plot and save our supper.

What I love most about food and recipes is the rich stories they tell about our lives. It’s one of the main reasons I started a food blog last year, a decision that I did not expect would lead to meaningful new friendships with other bloggers. Recent email conversations between me and Michelle brought us around to the joy of cooking on the grill (or the “BBQ,” as many West Coasters call it), and on Friday, she described this idea that she had invented to serve as a late-night patio bar snack at a restaurant where she once worked. Tequila-lime chicken is the kind of recipe you make by instinct, not by following specific amounts or ratios, and I love that she described the recipe that way—you know, with a little of this and a touch of that and a couple of those. It made perfect sense to me because 99 percent of the time, that’s exactly the way I cook, adding ingredients that fit the flavor profile until it looks and tastes “right.” It sounded perfect, and I couldn’t help but see my boring package of chicken tenders in a new light.

The ingredient list for the marinade was short and easy—tequila, citrus juice, fresh garlic and simple spices, such as cumin and chile seasoning, and it tenderized the chicken beautifully. My ingredient makeup wasn’t identical to Michelle’s recipe—she adds slices of onion to the marinade and I saved that for the pico topping—but the chicken turned out every bit as tender and flavorful as she described it, and I can totally see why her tequila-lime chicken tacos were a frequent “sellout” at the patio bar. We liked them so much at our house, I want to run out and buy a taco truck!

Tender, tequila-marinated chicken with the tropical pineapple pico and fresh cilantro. This was a fabulous twist of events!

The idea for tequila-lime chicken also gave me another excuse to make another batch of easy handmade corn tortillas, and this time I spiffed them up with cilantro puree, which accounts for the slight green tint to the shells. And I topped these “last-minute” tacos with a condiment concoction that I’m calling “pineapple pico,” a super-fresh, spicy, tropical mashup of pico de gallo and guacamole. I’ll share my notes for both at the end. 😊


Ingredients

About 1 1/4 pounds of chicken tenders, patted dry

1/4 cup silver tequila (I’m sure gold would work just as well)

Juice of 1 lime

Juice of 1/2 lemon

About 1/2 tsp. each of cumin, garlic pepper, ancho chile powder and kosher salt* (see notes)

2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced

2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil*


*Notes

I used spices that were within easy reach in my cabinet, and I chose ancho chile powder because we love the bright, fruity flavor of it. You could just as easily use chipotle powder or any kind of bottled chile powder or, as my friend pointed out in her email, even some kind of pre-made taco seasoning. Keep it simple and southwestern, and let the tequila and lime work their flavor magic.

A little oil helps in a marinade, especially when using a very lean meat. My hubby runs the grill pretty hot and I wanted to help protect the chicken tenders from burning or getting dried out. Olive oil is my go-to, but avocado or canola oil would work just as well.


Instructions

Make the marinade first and give the chicken several hours to overnight in the fridge to soak up all the delicious, south-of-the-border flavors. It goes like this:


Grill the chicken on a hot grill (500° F at first, my hubby says), then reduce heat to 350° once you get the grill marks. Chicken tenders are smaller than whole breasts, of course, so they will cook more quickly. Watch them closely and pull them off the grill as soon as the juices run clear.

Hubby gets those perfect grill marks every time! The chicken was so tender, it practically melted in our mouths!

Cut up or shred the chicken tenders (you’ll be shocked at how tender they are!) and serve as desired. We perched them atop cilantro-flavored corn tortillas with crunchy cabbage, radishes, pineapple pico and fresh cilantro.

If you missed my recent post on handmade corn tortillas, follow the link to check that out. I include full instructions and all my best tips for turning out successful tortillas, with or without a tortilla press!


Pineapple Pico

1/2 cup fresh pineapple, cut into tidbit-sized pieces

1/2 cup baby tomatoes, halved or quartered to tidbit-size

2 Tbsp. red onion, chopped

1/2 medium fresh jalapeno, chopped

1/2 ripe avocado, cut into cubes

Juice of 1/2 lime, plus salt and pepper


Thanks for an amazing idea, Michelle! 🙂


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. 😀

Want to make this recipe?


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!


“Un-stuffed” Cabbage Roll Soup

One of my favorite things to do in the kitchen is an unexpected twist on a food from my childhood. I remember seeing a recipe card in some family member’s collection for a dish called “glumpkies” or “go-umpkees” or something like it. Who knows the story on the name of the dish, but I remember that I really liked these rolled up packages of seasoned meat and rice inside tender leaves of cabbage and smothered in rich tomato sauce. It was pure comfort food, and though I’ve made them plenty of times in their classic form, I much prefer this simple, one-pot interpretation.

My Comfort du Jour twist on stuffed cabbage is what you might call a “deconstruction,” and it makes the classic dish a lot more approachable with minimal effort. It’s a pain to pre-cook the cabbage for traditional stuffed rolls, and in many ways, it even feels dangerous. I’ve burned myself in some of my early attempts to make the rolled-up version, and in some other attempts I’ve ended up with too much of the cabbage head remaining, and limited options for how to use it because it’s been boiled. That certainly won’t work for cole slaw, and what else are you gonna do with a bunch of extra, partially-cooked cabbage?

One of the flavors I always associate with cabbage rolls is caraway, the same seed that gives deli rye bread a distinct seasoning. I don’t know where the caraway was introduced to this dish for me, but it adds a little something that really works with the rustic chunks of cabbage, tomato and ground beef. If your family has a favorite traditional season, consider how you might put your own spin on my recipe with those beloved flavors.

The rest of the ingredients are simple, and you only need a medium stockpot and about an hour of simmering to get it on the table. Enjoy!

Served with a slice of crusty bread, this soup is hearty, satisfying and comforting.

Ingredients

1 lb. lean ground beef (90% lean is good)

1 tsp. caraway seed, crushed or milled in a spice grinder*

1 medium onion, rough chopped

Extra virgin olive oil

2 cups green cabbage, rough chopped

15 oz. can diced tomatoes, preferably low sodium

Salt and pepper

1 32 oz. carton beef broth, preferably low sodium

Cooked brown rice for serving


*Notes

Caraway seed is the same spice that gives rye bread a distinctive flavor. I’m not sure how I came to associate this flavor with stuffed cabbage rolls, but it is really delicious with the cabbage, tomato and meat. Substitute your own favorite flavor, or simply omit this ingredient. The soup will be delicious either way!


Instructions

  1. Press ground beef on a cutting board or parchment into a flat shape, about 1/2″ thick.
  2. If you have a spice grinder or mortar and pestle, use it to crush or grind the caraway seed into smaller bits. This is not essential, but it contributes flavor without the seed texture.
  3. Sprinkle the caraway powder or whole seeds all over the surface of the ground beef, and press to fully adhere it.
  4. Place a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Swirl in about a tablespoon of olive oil. Add onions and sauté until slightly softened and golden. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Tear off bits of ground beef and add them, only a few at a time, tossing in the hot oil to cook the edges before adding another small handful. Repeat until all ground beef is lightly browned. Avoid the temptation to add all the meat at once, as this will result in mushy meat rather than browned, individual bits.
  6. Add the chopped cabbage to the pot and toss to begin cooking. Add tomatoes, sauce included.
  7. Add beef broth and stir to combine. Allow mixture to come to a light boil, then cover and reduce heat. Simmer about an hour, until cabbage is tender.
  8. Serve over brown rice.

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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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Mahi Hemingway

Friends frequently ask my husband and me how it’s possible we aren’t gaining 10 pounds a week, given all the “rich foods” they see on my blog or his Facebook page. It’s a fair question after you’ve seen the Waffled Mac & Cheese or some of the unconventional creations on my Pizza Party page. But we don’t always eat heavy foods, and sometimes our meals just look more decadent than they really are thanks to presentation. That’s important to remember: If a food looks beautiful, it may be more appetizing, but that doesn’t mean it’s decadent. This Mahi Hemingway—a recipe I’ve adapted from a local restaurant—is a good example.

This dish is deceptively easy to make, and its flavor and presentation both rival the restaurant I “borrowed” it from. The restaurant version has a light and elegant white wine, lemon, tomato and caper sauce, served over delicate angel hair pasta and topped with a pan-seared fillet of fresh grouper. I first tasted it more than 15 years ago, and it’s still on the menu for $30. I’m not going to say it isn’t worth it, but I do know you can make it at home (with exactly the same flavors) for a fraction of that price, and it’s easy.

If you have never tasted capers (first of all, where’ve you been?), expect a briny, pickled flavor—kind of like a tangy green olive, but about the size of a green pea. I don’t use much in any recipe because capers pack a lot of flavor. You’ll see capers in Mediterranean cuisine, especially paired with seafood. I also love to chop and add them to condiments for seafood, such as tartar sauce.

The lemon is straightforward citrus, and it’s crucial (as I declare in most of my recipes) that you choose fresh. Bottled lemon juice is full of weird preservatives and has no place in my kitchen, as long as lemon trees are still alive somewhere on the planet.

The remaining ingredients are petite diced tomatoes (fresh is great, but canned works fine), a splash of white wine, about half a medium onion, your favorite long pasta and a couple of pats of butter. I’ll assume you already have extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.

Lots of great flavor, and all perfectly good for you.

The Prep

I love a recipe that comes together quickly, especially on a busy weeknight, and this one takes only about five minutes to prep. First, cut thin slices of onion, and then dice them small. Cut the lemon in half. Measure out a heaping teaspoon of capers (no need to rinse them). Cut up a roma tomato into small diced bits or use a slotted spoon to scoop about 1/3 cup from a can of petite diced (it’s OK if you also get some of the juice). Put on a pot to boil for your pasta, and salt and pepper the fish.

This is a very simple recipe, including these items plus a splash of white wine. You’ve got this!

About the fish

The restaurant version I mentioned is made with grouper, which isn’t always easy to find. I substituted mahi the first time I made it myself and liked it so much I never looked back. Mahi is a firm fish—stronger in flavor than grouper or tilapia, but not as “fishy” as a sea bass or mackerel. Choose any firm-fleshed fish you like. I keep the skin on during cooking because much of the healthy omega-3 fats are very close to the skin. I’ve found that with most fish, the skin is super easy to remove once that side has been cooked, but this is strictly a matter of preference. If you don’t like the skin, ask the fishmonger (I love that word) to remove it for you.

Mahi is an oily fish, with loads of good omega-3 fats. It’s concentrated in that red line down the middle.

Choosing your pasta

For pretty presentation, choose a “long” pasta—something delicate like spaghetti or angel hair works nicely. Whole grain is an excellent choice, and today, I’m using a new thin spaghetti Les picked up for us. It’s durum wheat (ideal for pasta), and made with spinach, zucchini, broccoli, parsley and kale. We are adding a whole serving of vegetable to our dish, but without extra effort. I’m good with that!

This “super greens” pasta is such a dark green, it almost resembles seaweed!

So far, this recipe is ticking all the boxes—healthful, quick, easy. I’m loving it.

Putting it all together

The fish and sauce will cook quickly, so get going with the pasta first. Remember to use plenty of water and salt it generously.

I use the same skillet for the fish and the sauce. Begin over medium heat, sautéing the onion with a little olive oil until it begins to soften. Move the onion to the edges of the pan, and add the mahi fillets, flesh side down. For the best sear, resist the urge to move it around much. After about seven minutes, it will release freely so you can turn the fish and cook the skin side.

Add the tomatoes, capers, lemon juice and white wine to the skillet, give it a gentle shake to mix the ingredients, then cover and allow it to simmer on low heat until the pasta is cooked al dente. Remove from heat. Transfer the fish fillets to a plate and cover to keep them warm. Add a pat of cold butter to the sauce and use a fork to swirl and melt it. This technique creates a silky richness without a lot of extra fat. Immediately drain the pasta and use tongs to give it a quick swish through the sauce to coat it before plating. Spoon some of the sauce over the pasta, then top with the mahi fillet and the remaining sauce. Sprinkle a little fresh, chopped parsley on top and enjoy!

The slides will give you a visual walk-through of how easy this is to make. If you want to save the recipe for later, there’s a button at the end of the post to download and print for your recipe book.


Ingredients

Makes two servings (easy to double; choose a large enough pan)

2 6 oz. fillets fresh mahi or other firm fish

2 servings thin spaghetti or angel hair pasta

1/2 medium sweet or yellow onion, thinly sliced and diced

1/3 cup petite diced tomatoes, strained from can or chopped fresh

1 heaping teaspoon capers

Juice of 1/2 large lemon

1/4 cup dry white wine

1 Tbsp. cold butter

Fresh chopped parsley, for serving

Every bit as good as the high-dollar restaurant.

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Souvlaki Pork Chops with Grilled Zucchini Salad

The warmth of summer is fading, and I’m not complaining. My favorite things to cook are autumn and winter foods, and I’m scheming to bring exciting new flavors into the new season.

But we still have to eat between now and then, and the grill has been our BFF this summer, especially as we have challenged ourselves to elevate our home-cooked meals while so many restaurants were closed. Here’s a quick look back at some of the fun grilled foods I’ve put on my plate since I launched Comfort du Jour:


Before the sun sets on summer 2020, I’m throwing down a Mediterranean twist on simple grilled pork chops. I love the flavors of souvlaki, the Greek specialty that highlights the brightness of lemon and pungency of garlic, and is often applied to chicken or pork on skewers, so why not just skip chopping the chops into chunks and just marinate them as they are?

Does this look healthy and delicious, or what?

And tasty grilled meat deserves a fresh grilled side, so I have also whipped up a flavorful, healthy salad made with fresh summer tomato, crunchy red onion and marinated grilled zucchini squash. Here we go!


Ingredients

2 thick sliced, bone-in pork chops

4 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of one lemon

1 Tbsp. white balsamic vinegar (or any white wine vinegar + pinch of sugar)

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (I used Greek Kalamata)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the salad:

1 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut lengthwise into wedges

1 medium firm tomato, cut into chunks

2 thick slices red onion, cut into chunks

6 Kalamata olives, drained and chopped

Dressing: 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp. white balsamic, a few shakes of garlic-pepper seasoning, 1/4 tsp. dried oregano, whisk in 2 Tbsp. olive oil.

Feta cheese, cut into cubes

Fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish


Instructions

Take a walk through the slideshow for visual instruction, and refer to the notes below if you need them. Remember, you can download the recipe in PDF format to try it yourself, and please let me know how it comes out for you!

  1. Season pork chops with salt and pepper.
  2. In a glass measuring cup, combine lemon juice, vinegars, oregano, salt and pepper. Drizzle olive oil into the blend, whisking constantly, until mixture is emulsified. Stir in minced garlic.
  3. Pour most of the marinate over the pork chops in a glass dish and set aside for 30 minutes. Turn once or twice during marinating time to ensure even distribution of flavor.
  4. Pour the remaining marinade over the zucchini strips in another dish. Salt and pepper the zucchini and set those aside while you chop and prep the remaining salad ingredients.
  5. Mix together the dressing ingredients and set that aside, giving the dried oregano time to hydrate.
  6. Prepare grill and pre-heat to about 450° F (medium). Carefully place the pork chops over direct heat and sear each side about 1 minute to seal in juices. Then reduce the heat to about 350° F. The olive oil may cause flare-ups, so keep that cold beer in your hand to splash if necessary. Just kidding; either keep a squirt bottle nearby or use a grill tool to try to put out the flare or move the chops.
  7. Continue to cook for about 10 minutes each side, or until juices start to run clear when pierced with a knife tip.
  8. When you turn the chops, pile the zucchini onto the grill also, and turn them frequently to cook evenly and to get those beautiful grill marks.
  9. Allow the finished chops to rest and chop the zucchini spears into bite-sized chunks. Immediately toss the grilled zucchini with the rest of the salad ingredients. Whisk the dressing briefly, then pour over salad and toss gently to combine. Scatter cubes of feta and fresh parsley over salad and serve alongside the pork chops.
Grill, I’m gonna miss you…

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