“Copycat” Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Ever since I started browsing recipes on Pinterest, I’ve noticed something that bothers me—the prominence of so-called “copycat” recipes. For some reason, everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea of bringing home the dishes they’ve enjoyed in a restaurant. And with great frequency, the restaurant they copy is a chain.

How did we get here? I remember a time when restaurants made claims like “as good as Mom used to make,” or “from a three-generations-old recipe.” Does this mean I’m old? When did we make this shift from holding restaurants to standard of homemade foods we remember from childhood—to seeking a fettucine alfredo that’s “just like the Cheesecake Factory?”

Most of the time, chain restaurant menus strike me as calorie- and sodium-laden oversized portions, often indistinguishable in terms of cuisine style. For example, it wouldn’t seem so strange to find a salad on a chain menu with blackened chicken (Cajun), a soy-based dressing (Asian), topped with roasted corn (Tex-Mex) and dried cranberries (um, what?). These are the kind of things that keep me up at night. What is a salad such as that even trying to be?

So when I asked a friend a couple of years ago for her preference for a girls’ lunch date, I admit that I cringed at her response—“How about P.F. Chang’s?”

A chain? Ugh. It’s my own fault, but my friend’s workplace isn’t near to many independent spots, so I agreed, and as luck would have it, I’m glad I went. Not because the food was exceptional (it was fine), but because I (finally) became inspired to delve into cooking the mouthwatering world of Asian food. For years, I loved the flavors but felt intimidated by this particular cuisine, with all of its complex special sauces and high-temperature cooking techniques. So how did a single meal at an Asian chain restaurant open my culinary mind?

Two words. Lettuce wraps.

Spicy, fresh and crunchy. Why did I wait so long to discover these?

I loved the idea of the lettuce wraps—crunchy fresh lettuce wrapped up around a small mound of spicy sauced chicken with flash-fried rice noodles on the side. It seemed fresh and healthy, and the server was happy to bring me a side of their “ring of fire” sauce, which is pretty much the hottest thing you’d ever imagine ingesting. Man, that stuff was good. But later in the day, after my fourth glass of water, I remembered why I steer clear of the chains. My food was really, really salty. After a quick online lookup, I discovered that my lunch, considered an appetizer on the Chang’s menu, had 1,820 mg of sodium. In one appetizer.

That sent me off in search of a better way. I went to the market and discovered that nearly every Asian sauce is available in a reduced sodium version, so those were the ones I brought home (after inspecting the label ingredients for any other deal breakers, of course). I tasted each one, experimented with flavor combinations and figured out some other ways to add texture and flavor. And today, I present my very own copycat recipe—for chicken lettuce wraps. My version is decidedly lower in sodium, swaps out boring iceberg leaves in favor of crunchy romaine, with addition of sweet red bell pepper (did you know they are higher in vitamin C than oranges?), and nutty brown rice rather than bland, deep-fried rice noodles.

So maybe this is the reason for all the copycats on Pinterest. Perhaps other amateur chefs have the same idea—to enjoy the flavor they’ve had in other places, but with more control over the ingredients, the fat and the sodium. It also has occurred to me that because I grew up in a small community with no chain restaurants at all, I do not have any history of food memories tied to them, as others probably do. In the end, I learned something and found a new favorite to make at home.

These wraps are delicious, the heat is adjustable (either way) to taste, and my husband and I enjoy them so much, that lettuce wraps are now in our regular menu rotation. All because of lunch at a chain restaurant. If you’ve been nervous to try an Asian recipe at home, allow me to introduce you to a few of the key ingredients:

You can mix and match these in so many ways.

What is in hoisin sauce?

Hoisin sauce is a sweet, sticky sauce, made from fermented soy beans and garlic, and flavored with aromatic spices such as fennel, cinnamon and star anise. It is very common in Chinese and Thai dishes, sometimes used as a cooking ingredient but also sometimes as a dipping sauce. Think of it as an Eastern-world barbecue sauce. It’s delicious!

What is tamari?

Tamari is a wheat-free alternative to traditional soy sauce. The organic, low-sodium versions are often significantly lower than the low-sodium soy sauces, but the flavor is nearly identical. Because it’s wheat-free, it’s suitable for gluten-free diets—but for this recipe, be sure to check every other ingredient label for hidden sources of gluten if this is a concern.

What is sriracha?

Sriracha is an Asian-style condiment, made from aged hot peppers, vinegar, salt and a bit of sugar. It adds plenty of heat to this recipe but is balanced with the tang of the vinegar. Adjust this one to suit your taste but consider using at least 1 teaspoon to get the chili flavor that makes this dish special.

What’s different about chili-garlic sauce?

Chili-garlic sauce is similar in flavor to sriracha, but it’s a chunkier sauce that adds texture and a lot of savory heat, with underlying notes of garlic and not a lot of salt. If you love spicy food, double it (as I often do); if you aren’t into as much heat, use half or skip it altogether.

Anybody besides me getting hungry?


Ingredients

1 lb. lean ground chicken* (see notes for vegan option)

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small red bell pepper, chopped

3 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced

1/2 can sliced water chestnuts, drained and diced small*

Sauce

4 Tbsp. hoisin sauce (low sodium)

2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar (not the “seasoned” variety, which has extra salt)

2 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce (or tamari, which is even lower)

1 Tbsp. sriracha sauce

1 Tbsp. chili-garlic sauce

For serving

2 tsp. toasted sesame oil*

Fresh romaine heart, trimmed and prepped*

Hot cooked brown jasmine rice

3 scallions (green onions), trimmed and thinly sliced

Sesame seeds (optional), sprinkled on for serving


*Notes

Want to make this vegan? Swap the chicken for firm, cubed tofu (patted very dry) and a handful of cashews. Delicious!

In case you’re wondering, it’s not accidental that salt is not listed in the ingredients. Part of the goal with this recipe is reduction of the high sodium in the original dish. The sauces have enough to cover it.

Most supermarkets sell water chestnuts in their Asian section, and sometimes they are available in a diced form, but the pieces are almost as large as sugar cubes. I prefer the slices, because it’s easier to cut the slices into a smaller dice.

A little bit of toasted sesame oil goes a long way, so don’t be tempted to use more of this. Additionally, you don’t want to cook in this pungent oil because its low smoke point will cause it to scorch.

To prep the romaine heart, trim the stem end and rinse the individual leaves under cold running water. Drain them of excess water, then wrap them up in paper towels and place the bundle in the fridge until it’s time to serve. The chilly air will keep them crisp, and the towels will absorb lingering moisture.


Instructions

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add canola oil, then brown the ground chicken together with the garlic and fresh ginger. Add the chopped yellow onions and red bell pepper and sauté until the vegetables are soft. Add the chopped water chestnuts and heat through.

In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine the hoisin sauce, soy or tamari, sriracha, chili-garlic sauce and rice wine vinegar. Whisk to combine.

Adjust the heat level up or down, simply by changing the amounts of sriracha and chili-garlic sauce.

Pour the sauce combination over the chicken and stir to coat evenly. Just before serving, drizzle in the toasted sesame oil and stir to combine.

Yes, they’re as fresh and yummy as they look.

For serving

You could probably pre-fill the lettuce leaves with the chicken mixture for serving, but we enjoy the DIY aspect of serving it at the table. Arrange the lettuce leaves on a plate, with the brown rice in one bowl and the meat mixture in another, sprinkled with sliced scallions and sesame seeds.

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What restaurant recipes have you copied (or wanted to)? Leave me a comment, and maybe we can tackle it together!


Seared Tuna with Forbidden Rice and Tropical Salsa

This colorful dish proves two points—that eating healthy does not have to be boring or bland, and that you don’t need to be in a restaurant to enjoy a restaurant-quality meal.

When it comes to fresh seafood, I believe in keeping the fish (or shrimp, scallops, crab, whatever) as close to its true state as possible. Trust citrus juice, salt and pepper to bring out the best in seafood and bring in other complementary flavors on the side. That’s what I’ve done with this pretty plate, featuring a fresh-caught ahi tuna steak and a tropical fruit salsa that comes together in about 7 minutes. The most time-consuming part of the dish is waiting for the rice to cook.

If you’ve never seen or cooked with forbidden rice before, here’s a quick list of facts to help you get to know this delicious, somewhat unusual ingredient.

Black rice is sometimes called “forbidden” rice.

Where does black rice come from, and why is it “forbidden?”

Black rice originated across the continent of Asia, and has long been a significant crop in China, Bangladesh, parts of the Philippines, Thailand and Northeast India. The grain is no longer considered “forbidden,” but it was given that distinction in ancient China because of its former scarcity. The cost of this rare food put it out of reach for all but the wealthiest people, and so it was forbidden to everyone else. That has changed, however, as it is now cultivated more widely and readily available in larger supermarkets or online.

What gives black rice its color?

The rice has a very deep color that looks nearly black in its raw state, but in bright light and after cooking, it’s easier to see that it is actually more of a deep purple. This is because of anthocyanin, a type of plant pigment that also occurs in blueberries, raspberries, purple cauliflower and “blue” corn. Although some websites suggest the anthocyanins have antioxidant properties, scientific studies have so far only shown this to be true in a lab environment—not in the human body by food consumption.

What does black rice taste like?

If you were to close your eyes while tasting black rice, you might think you were enjoying smaller grains of brown rice because of the similar mild, slightly nutty flavor.

What do you make with black rice?

You can use black rice the same way you’d use any rice—in side dishes, pilafs, soups and salads. Also, because of its unusual color, it is commonly used in Asian countries in special dessert dishes, especially rice pudding made with coconut milk.


Ingredients

1 cup cooked black rice

2 portions fresh tuna steak

1 cup fresh pineapple, cut into bite-sized pieces* (see notes)

1 fresh honey mango, cut into chunks*

1/4 red bell pepper, diced (or 1 Tbsp. jarred pimentos, drained)

1/4 cup red onion, diced

1/2 fresh jalapeno, seeded and finely diced (optional to taste)

4 fresh mint leaves, cut into thin strips* (see slides for tips)

1 Tbsp. peach white balsamic vinegar*

1 Tbsp. neutral extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and fresh black pepper

Juice of 1/2 lime


*Notes

Save some time on the pineapple and pick it up pre-cut from your produce department. I don’t recommend canned pineapple for this, but you could probably use frozen (thawed) in a pinch.

There are hundreds of varieties of mango, but usually two at my market—“regular” mango, which is kind of round-oval and darkish green with blushing orange areas, and the one they call “honey” mango, which is usually smaller and more elongated, deep yellow all over, and (my reason for choosing it) easier to cut up. Use whatever variety is your favorite, or whatever is available. If you’ve never cut up a mango, check out the slideshow below for some easy tips.

The peach white balsamic is a specialty product I purchased at a gourmet olive oil and vinegar store. I chose it because it’s soft and fruity, but feel free to substitute any light vinegar you like, especially one that plays well with the fresh tropical flavors in this salsa—think fruity, citrus or mint.

Here’s a visual walk-through of how I put this together, and written instructions appear below.


Instructions

  1. Season tuna steaks with only sea salt and black pepper, and set aside, covered, at room temperature.
  2. Cook black rice according to package instructions. Try not to stir it too much to avoid additional “stickiness.”
  3. While rice is cooking, prepare salsa—combine pineapple and mango pieces, add jalapeno, red onion and red bell pepper. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Use a mini whisk to combine peach balsamic and extra virgin olive oil, stirring briskly until a thick emulsion results. (If your vinegar is not a balsamic, it may be thinner consistency)
  5. Stack mint leaves, then roll them lengthwise into a tube shape and cut across into slices. When unfurled, these will be thin strips.
  6. Pour dressing over fruit salsa blend and toss to coat evenly. Give it a taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Sprinkle mint leaves into blend, gently toss again and set aside.
  7. When rice is ready, sear tuna steak on a medium-hot griddle, grill or skillet, turning to sear other side to desired doneness. Ideally, good quality fresh tuna should be cooked rare, but if you’re squeamish about that, push it to medium-rare.

Plate by spooning about 1/2 cup black rice, then lay tuna steak halfway over the pile. Spoon salsa over the top, squeeze lime over both plates and serve!

It’s light, fresh and pretty!

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“Leftovers” Mac & Cheese with Collards

I’m on a crusade to empty out all the random dishes of this-and-that in the refrigerator, and that usually leads to a short list of outcomes. We might end up having a “potpourri” night, where nothing really goes together but at least it’s sustenance. Or we might decide we’ve enjoyed the original dishes on their own for long enough, and we quietly turn the dishes out into the trash can, which is wasteful and leaves me feeling unresourceful. And every once in a blue moon, the random leftovers have a common thread and speak to me in a way that leads to a crazy good meal that hardly feels like leftovers at all.

Option No. 3 is on our plate this time, with leftover southern collard greens, a single leftover smoked sausage (infused with Texas Pete flavor), some crumbs of ghost pepper potato chips and too many half-used chunks of cheese in the deli drawer.

Kicked-up mac and cheese, baby. The sausage is cooked in smoke, so it has a nice firm texture, easy to cube and fry in a skillet until crispy. I’m inspired to add the collard greens because of a trip Les and I made to NYC in late 2018, and we took the subway up to Harlem for dinner at The Red Rooster, owned by celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. He has a popular dish on his menu called “mac and greens,” featuring (you guessed it) cooked collards.


We were lucky to get a table at Red Rooster during the holiday season. All of New York was bustling, and the restaurant was lively and loud and fabulous. I ordered Poppa Eddie’s Shrimp & Grits, which was like a rich and flavorful gumbo served over creamy cheese grits. Les enjoyed the Hot Honey Yardbird. Yes, it was half a chicken, and yes, he finished the whole thing. But the restaurant staff told us, by far, the most popular menu item was the mac and greens, so we ordered it as a starter to our incredible meal. It was so crazy good, and I can’t explain why it has taken me until now to create my own version of it at home.

This is another perfect example of Comfort du Jour—a classic comfort food elevated with unexpected ingredients, and, as a bonus in homage to my frugal grandmother (and role model in all things kitchen-y), this one happens to empty out a bunch of leftovers to boot. Oh, this is gonna be fun!

I haven’t made mac and cheese since my first blog post back in April, so it’s definitely time. If you missed that post, you can check it out now, but I’ll offer a quick refresher course on making the star of the dish, which is the bechamel-based cheese sauce.

For starters, get some American cheese for the melting quality that cannot be matched with only block cheeses. The rest of the cheese is best freshly grated rather than pre-shredded in a bag. We are looking for extreme creaminess, and if you have an immersion blender, pull it out of the cabinet because that is my secret weapon for the silkiest, creamiest cheese sauce in minutes. Ready?


Ingredients

6 oz. orrechiette* (I had half of a 12 oz. box)

3 Tbsp. each butter and flour

1 3/4 cups whole milk (2% would be OK, but less rich)

5 oz. American cheese (the kind you get by the pound in the deli)

6 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, shredded* (most of a regular block)

A few twists of freshly ground black pepper

1 cup leftover cooked collard greens, drained if resting in liquid)

1 leftover “Texas Pete” smoked sausage*

Leftover crumbs from the bottom of a bag of Ghost Pepper potato chips from Trader Joe’s (c’mon, you have this, don’t you?)


*Notes

Orrechiette is a small pasta shape, and I happened to have a half-box of it. Its name translates to “little ears” in Italian, and it can easily be swapped out for another small shape of pasta, such as elbows or rotini—essentially, you want a shape that will grab hold of your delicious cheese sauce. I’ve noticed that the popular pasta shapes have been in scarce supply, which makes this a fun time to try new ones!

I had cheddar in abundance in my deli drawer, but of course any cheese that melts well would work. Most of the time, I gather up all the scraps and bits and throw them in—it’s why my mac and cheese is hardly ever the same twice.

The smoked sausage was a lone straggler from a meal Les had grilled up a few nights before. Smoked sausage has a really firm texture (think kielbasa), and this one in particular was seasoned before smoking with Texas Pete sauce.


Here’s a visual run-through for you. Because it was leftovers, it made enough to feed the two of us for dinner, with a bonus portion of mac and greens without the sausage.


Instructions

  1. Melt butter, cook flour until bubbly, add milk and whisk until smooth. Melt American cheese into the sauce and whisk until smooth. Add grated cheddar, whisk until smooth.
  2. Use immersion blender to emulsify cheese into an ultra-smooth mixture. Season with smoked black pepper.
  3. Cut smoked sausage into bite sized pieces, cook in small hot skillet to crisp up the edges of the sausage.
  4. Cook pasta to “early al dente” stage. It will soften further in the oven with the cheese sauce. Add finished pasta to cheese sauce, add cooked collard greens and stir until evenly combined.
  5. Layer mac & cheese in ramekins with the crispy sausage bits, top with crushed potato chip crumbs. Bake at 350° F for 30 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and top is lightly browned with crisp edges.

I made ours in individual serving ramekins, and put the rest in a small casserole we can use for lunch sides later in the week.

Does this really even need words?

From the oven, the mac and cheese is hearty and satisfying, with an ultra-creamy sauce and occasional bites of crispy smoked sausage. And the savory collards add another level of flavor, not to mention the nutritional value they bring to the table.

It’s creamy, but still has so much interesting texture, thanks to the sausage, collards and spicy potato chip crumbs. If I hadn’t made it myself, nobody would convince me it was made from leftovers.

Now, if I could only plan ahead to come up with these exact leftovers, because I sure would like to make this dish again. Of course, who knows what will be taking up space in the fridge next week.

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Creamy Spinach & Mushroom Tortellini

It seems like a never-ending battle, trying to evict leftovers from our fridge and stay on top of the new groceries coming in. Four months into pandemic lockdown, I still haven’t mastered the challenges of “shopping for the week.” But my culinary muse has been on some kind of caffeine kick lately, and I’m at it again today with a Meatless Monday-worthy pasta dish, made almost entirely with leftovers. Not to worry, though—I’m sure it would be fantastic with fresh-bought ingredients, too.

This one uses up leftover fresh tortellini from a soup recipe last week, and a few fresh produce items starting clamoring when I opened the fridge, so in they went! Cremini mushrooms, with all their warm, earthy flavor, plus baby spinach, sweet onions and fresh garlic. I happened to have a half bag of sweetly sun-kissed dried tomatoes in the pantry cabinet, and we’re off and cooking. I’m gonna get to the bottom of this cluttered fridge yet!

We are empty nesters, and many of my recipes are designed to serve two people. But doubling a recipe such as this one is easy, as long as you’re mindful about the size of your pan.

It’s creamy, rich and packed with earthy flavor!

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium sweet onion (tennis ball size), cut in half and sliced into crescent shapes

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 handfuls fresh baby spinach, rough chopped

1/4 cup soft sun-dried tomatoes*

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup heavy cream* (see notes for a lighter option)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (something like Pinot Grigio is perfect)

2 cups fresh cheese tortellini (this was half a large package)

Trader Joe’s umami seasoning, optional

3 Tbsp. parm-romano blend* (plus extra for serving)


*Notes

My sun-dried tomatoes are the soft variety, packed in a zip-top bag. If yours are dry and hard, it’s probably a good idea to rehydrate them for a few minutes in hot water before proceeding. If they’re packed in olive oil, you’re good to go.

Want to lighten this up? Here’s a trick that works great in recipes where the fat of heavy cream isn’t as important as the texture. Swap it out in favor of canned evaporated milk. It is more concentrated than fresh milk, but with a fraction of the fat. Give it a try!

If you prefer, you could substitute a vegetable broth for the wine, plus a squeeze of lemon juice or splash of red wine vinegar. This will make up for the acidity the wine adds to the dish.

We go through a LOT of parm-romano blend at our house, and I mention this ingredient in many of my recipes. Rather than purchasing the pre-grated stuff at the market, we buy parmesan and romano in blocks and grate it in our food processor. It’s terrific to be able to reach into the fridge and have a container of it ready to go, plus it’s fresher and more flavorful with no added stabilizers or anti-caking agents. Did I mention we save money with this method?


I’m a visual learner, and if you are as well, have a look at the slideshow before you advance to the recipe. Fair warning: it might make you hungry!


Instructions

  1. Place a large pot of water on to boil over medium-high heat, for cooking the tortellini.
  2. Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.
  3. Add onion slices to the skillet and cook, tossing occasionally, until softened and browned on the edges.
  4. Remove onions to a bowl, add another splash of olive oil to the pan and toss in the mushrooms, cooking and tossing until they are soft and moisture has evaporated. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Move the mushrooms to the outside edges of the pan and add the spinach leaves to the middle. Toss them around until wilted then add the sun-dried tomato pieces.
  6. Stir in the heavy cream, then add the white wine and parmesan-romano blend and reduce heat. Return the caramelized onions to the pan. Cover and allow mixture to simmer on low heat a few minutes while the pasta cooks.
  7. When water comes to a boil, season with 2 teaspoons kosher salt (don’t worry—most of the salt ends up down the drain). Add tortellini and stir immediately to prevent sticking. Reduce heat to medium and allow pasta to cook at a low boil for about 5 minutes. It’s OK to undercook them slightly because they’ll cook further in the sauce.
  8. Drain tortellini (or use a large straining spoon, as I did) and add to the sauce mixture. At this point, I tasted and decided it need just a little something. Remember the Trader Joe’s “umami” seasoning we introduced in the Lentil Moussaka? It’s perfectly at home in this dish, underscoring the flavor of the mushrooms already in the dish, and throwing on just a touch of extra savory depth.
  9. Give it a good toss to thoroughly coat the tortellini, then go set the table. It’s a good time to pour another glass of wine, while you’re at it.
  10. Divide the creamy pasta between two pasta bowls, sprinkle with additional parm-romano blend and serve.

It doesn’t look like leftovers and it sure doesn’t taste like it, but I’ve regained some ground on the shelves of my refrigerator. Plus, we ended up with one lingering portion of this dish, perfect for my husband to reheat for a work lunch. And that’s a win-win!

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Jamaican Jerk Chicken Stuffed Peppers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. ground chicken

1 small red onion, chopped

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

1/2 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1 Tbsp. Jamaican jerk seasoning*

2 large red bell peppers

*Notes

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

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

Instructions

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

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

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

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Yep, he finished it.

Spotlight on Peppers

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

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

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

Who knew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ingredients

1 red bell pepper  (any gender is fine) 🙂

1 yellow bell pepper

1 medium onion, cut into large chunks

1 medium zucchini, cut into large chunks

8 oz. package fresh cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed


Marinade*

1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

Garlic pepper or lemon pepper seasoning

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

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil


About 1 lb. fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

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

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper


*Notes

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

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


Instructions

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Bonus tip:

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



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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