Smoky Guacamole

Terrie and I enjoy surprising each other with gifts that we know the other will appreciate and play to our sense of adventure in the kitchen. So it was a few Christmases back when I opened one of my gifts and unveiled the book Buenos Nachos! by Gina Hamadey. Terrie knew that I already enjoyed making different kinds of nachos and had come to recognize herself how enjoyable nachos could be as a dinner, and relatively healthy, too, if you plan for it. The book is, as the title indicates, a treasure trove of nacho recipes, many of which come from restaurants whose owners shared their secrets. The part of the book I’ve put most to use, though, is in the smaller section on accoutrements such as salsa, guacamole, queso and “refreshments.”

Specifically, I’ve latched onto “Smoky Guacamole” as a go-to offering at parties or pre-dinner snacks at our house. I was a latecomer to guacamole, I have to admit. I moved to Southern California after college and refused to get into the chill, SoCal swing of things and eat a disgusting-looking condiment with a questionable consistency. Instead, I simply expanded George Carlin’s skepticism about “blue foods” to include pasty green stuff. I don’t remember exactly when I gave in and tried guacamole, but I cannot imagine life without it now. The freshness of the lime and cilantro added to chunks of avocado and tomatoes was made for a nacho chip. Or, in the recent case in our household, as a side/add-on to homemade barbacoa tacos.



The reason I like this particular recipe—the very first one I tried from Buenos Nachos!—is the boost guacamole gets by simply adding in a couple of tablespoons (or more, as I like to do) of chipotles in adobo sauce. The smoky spice of the adobo sauce gives guac exactly the kind of “elevate your happy” that my better half talks about so often.

Coincidentally, smoky guacamole also serves as a fine topping or side for any of the nacho dinners I put together. Next up for me out of Buenos Nachos! will be liberating and enhancing a savory cheese sauce from one of the nacho recipes. But for now, I hope you enjoy this smoky guacamole as much as we do.


The usual guac suspects are all here, but the chipotles in adobo is the standout ingredient that puts the smoke in Smoky Guacamole.

Ingredients

3 avocados, halved and cubed

2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped

Juice of half a lime

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

2 Tbsp. or more pureed chipotles in adobo sauce* (see notes)

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro

Salt and pepper


*Notes

To make the chipotle puree, empty an entire 7 oz. can of chipotle peppers with adobo sauce into a food processor. Pulse several times until mixture is mostly smooth. Transfer mixture to a bowl and keep in the fridge for about two weeks. In this recipe, use as much adobo as your spice meter desires. Add some to your next batch of chili, or use it to kick up a homemade bbq sauce.


Instructions


  1. Put the diced avocado in a large bowl and add the lime juice. Toss lightly to prevent the avocado browning.
  2. Add in the tomatoes, onion and chipotle-adobo puree. Stir with a large spoon or mash with a fork; if you prefer a smoother guacamole, you can mash the avocados first, but fans of chunky texture can settle for just mixing up the ingredients.
  3. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Finally, add the cilantro and fold again.

Buenos nachos!

Heaven on a chip.

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Midwinter Minestrone

Cold weather and shorter days gettin’ you down? Me, too. We’ve had a few close calls this season for snow or wintry mix, but not much has materialized here in the South, though we’ve had our share of cold, dreary days and nights. My friends and family around New York and Boston have seen far more than their share of winter this week, thanks to the Nor’easter that dropped a foot or more of snow. And Punxsutawney Phil, the jumbo rodent in charge of this whole thing, saw his shadow (or perhaps felt the snowflakes falling against his fat cheeks) this morning, and declared “six more weeks of winter.” The bottom line is that winter is getting old; we are all tired of it. What we need is some warm and nourishing comfort food.

I finally pulled out our 7-quart cast-iron Dutch oven and made a huge batch of this soup that never fails to chase away my midwinter blues—a steaming hot bowl of Italian flavor that is chock-full of fresh, nutritious vegetables, spicy Italian sausage, creamy beans and petite pasta. This is the kind of food that warms you from the inside, whether you’re dining at the table or curled up with a soft blanket on the sofa while eating your minestrone from a pottery mug and binging on Netflix. Whatever comfort looks like for you, this soup has it covered.

Minestrone is Italian, obviously, so I’ve seasoned it with my own “Mamma Mia” blend of herbs and spices. This seasoning blend was born more than a decade ago when I participated in a “reverse offering” experiment at church. We were given $20 and challenged to double (or more) that money for charitable donation. The effort was intended to show how we could use our own talents to make a difference in the world. I bought a bunch of bulk spices, turned them into blends and packaged them into baby food jars (which I found for free on Craigslist) with little fabric-wrapped tops for individual sale. The end of the story is that my $20 turned into almost $60 (a fine return), and I still have several of my blends in regular rotation today. Mamma Mia seasoning contains dried oregano, basil, thyme, marjoram and ground fennel seed, plus garlic and crushed red pepper. It’s zesty, herbal and a little bit spicy, and just the right punch of flavor in this minestrone.

Nothing says “comfort” better than a bowl of nourishing soup, and I hope you’ll find it just right for stuck-at-home days, snow days, waiting for snow days, sick of the snow days and—well, pretty much all the days.

Who says comfort food can’t be good for you? This soup has so much going on nutritionally.

This recipe makes about 4 quarts. You will need a large soup pot, slow cooker or Dutch oven to hold all the ingredients, but the recipe can easily be halved for a more manageable batch. This soup also freezes well, so you can pack some away for another gloomy day.


Ingredients from the pantry

Choose low-sodium, organic ingredients as much as possible. The spice blend in the jar is my own Mamma Mia seasoning.

Extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper (of course)

1 medium onion, chopped

2 Tbsp. fresh chopped garlic

1 carton low-sodium vegetable broth

1 carton low-sodium chicken broth* (see notes)

28 oz. can whole peeled tomatoes in tomato puree (San Marzano preferred)

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

15 oz. can dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

2 tsp. Mamma Mia Seasoning blend (see the end of the post for ingredients, or substitute another salt-free Italian seasoning + a few hearty shakes crushed red pepper flakes)

2 cups dry ditalini (or other petite shaped pasta, such as small elbows or mini farfalle)


Ingredients from the fridge

It looks like we are eating the rainbow with this soup!

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 cup chopped carrots

1 cup each green and red bell peppers, chopped

1/2 bulb fennel, sliced and chopped*

8 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 fat handful kale leaves, chopped small*

1 handful fresh Italian (flat leaf) parsley, cleaned and finely chopped for garnish at serving

1 or 2 lbs. bulk hot Italian sausage* (optional, see notes)


*Notes

Minestrone is perfectly adaptable for a vegetarian, or even vegan, option. Simply swap more vegetable broth for the chicken broth and skip the sausage in favor of additional beans. For texture and interest, I’d recommend a can of garbanzo beans in place of the meat.

Fennel provides a real Italian flavor to minestrone, and the flavor is echoed in my Mamma Mia seasoning, which includes ground fennel seed. It has a crunchy texture that is similar to celery, and a slight licorice flavor that blends well with the other ingredients. Use only the white bulb part of the vegetable (see the slides for more description).

Any type of kale can be used in minestrone. Lacinato kale is commonly used in Italian cooking, but I used curly kale. If you prefer, you could also substitute about 1 1/2 cups finely shredded and chopped green cabbage. These hearty greens add texture and fiber to the soup.

You decide how much sausage, if any, you use in this recipe. My batch included only 1 pound this time, and I used a chicken sausage that was labeled “hot Italian.” Turkey or pork sausage would also work or as mentioned above, you could omit the meat altogether for a vegan version.

Want to make this in a slow cooker? Go for it! The soup doesn’t need much attention other than occasional stirring or adding ingredients. After the initial cooking of sausage and veggies, simply dump everything into the slow cooker and let it go on high heat for several hours, or low heat overnight. It may help to give the kale a quick sauté before adding to the crock, given that it is much larger volume before cooking and most slow cookers recommend filling only 2/3 full.


Instructions

First, the pictures, or you can scroll down for written instructions and a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat 4 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add sausage and cook until browned, breaking up larger pieces with a spoon or wooden utensil.
  2. Add chopped onions, carrots, celery, peppers, fennel and garlic. Stir and cook until vegetables soften, and the moisture released from them has mostly evaporated.
  3. Scatter Italian seasoning blend over the ingredients and stir to combine.
  4. Move the sausage and vegetables to the outer edges of the pot and drizzle another tablespoon of olive oil in the center. Toss in the mushrooms, half at a time, and gently toss them around to lightly brown them. If you’re using a slow cooker, transfer the mixture at the end of this step.
  5. Add the whole plum tomatoes, squeezing each thoroughly by hand directly into the pot. This will assist in breaking down the tomatoes for quicker cooking. Empty all puree into the pot as well.
  6. Add the vegetable and chicken broths and stir to combine. Heat soup to a low boiling point, then reduce heat to a simmer. This will take about 15 minutes.
  7. Stir in finely chopped kale and stir. Add piece of Parmesan rind and allow it to simmer with the soup for a few hours.
  8. Near the end of your expected cooking time, drain and rinse the canned beans. Season them with salt and pepper before adding them to the soup.
  9. Fill a large pot with water and cook the ditalini (or other petite pasta) to al dente texture. Drain pasta and add to the soup just before serving. Alternatively, drain the pasta, toss with a small amount of oil to prevent sticking, and transfer it to a separate bowl to be added to soup as it’s served. This will help you enjoy the soup several days later, without mushy noodles.
This soup is destroying my midwinter blahs!

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Mamma Mia Seasoning Blend


1 Tbsp. granulated garlic

1 Tbsp. dried minced garlic

1 Tbsp. dried Mediterranean oregano

1 Tbsp. dried basil leaves

1 Tbsp. fennel seed, crushed

2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

2 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1 tsp. dried marjoram leaves


Tex-Mex Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Tomorrow at daybreak, about 80 miles outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, one of the strangest of all American traditions will occur. Punxsutawney Phil, the notorious groundhog (or woodchuck, as he is known in my old neck of the woods), will be dragged out of bed by the scruff of his neck and ordered to break the news to the faithful fans who have traveled there to get a verdict on winter. The mayor of Punxsutawney will hold this oversized rodent up to the crowd as Mufasa did in the presentation of Simba, and poor Phil will probably be some combination of terrified, confused and sleepy. Depending on whether he sees his shadow, we will either have an early spring or six more weeks of winter. I can never remember which scenario leads to which outcome, but how do we really know what he sees, anyway?

Such a curious thing, to imagine this whole scene is a valid means of setting expectation for what’s to come. Surely these folks have calendars. Winter ends March 20, when spring begins, and from Groundhog Day, the calendar states clearly that it is six more weeks, plus a few days. I suppose that everywhere else in the world, people just think of it as Feb. 2. I’m in favor of letting the rascal sleep.

At least we can watch the amusing Bill Murray movie. Again. 😉

From a purely whimsical standpoint, the observance of Groundhog Day does, if nothing else, provide a little comic relief from the heaviness of winter. Punxsutawney Phil may not be a real prognosticator, but he is a beacon of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel that was gray January. I’ve been trying to offer the same recently with presentation of bright and colorful dishes to chase away that gray.

A sprinkling of cilantro and squeeze of fresh lime completes this colorful Meatless Monday meal!

These Tex-Mex stuffed sweet potatoes will bring a big generous pop of color to your Meatless Monday, and vibrant flavors, too. Zesty peppers and fire-roasted sweet corn, combined with black beans and cheese on an oven-roasted sweet potato is both nourishing and tasty, customized to your own heat preference, and you can top it with avocado, your favorite salsa, sour cream or whatever else you like. Our go-to seasoning for Tex-Mex dishes is my own spice blend, lovingly named “Fire & Brimstone,” given its multiple layers of spicy heat and smoky depth. Of course, I’ll share that, too.

This is one recipe that takes almost no skill in the kitchen. Really, if you can chop an onion, you’ve got this. You could even pop the sweet potatoes in the oven while you watch Groundhog Day on TBS (they’ll have it on a 24/7 loop, I’m sure), and finish the rest of the prep during the commercial breaks.

Serves 2 (or double it so you can have it again tomorrow)

Beautiful colors, and loads of Tex-Mex flavor!

Ingredients

2 large fresh sweet potatoes, scrubbed clean

1 Tbsp. kosher salt

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1/2 red bell pepper, chopped

1 Tbsp. jalapeno, chopped

1/4 cup fire-roasted frozen corn (or regular corn)

A few shakes of Fire & Brimstone* (or another Tex-Mex seasoning, see notes)

About 2 oz. finely shredded mild cheddar cheese (or Colby, Monterey Jack, etc.)

1/2 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 ripe avocado, cubed

Fresh cilantro and lime, for serving

Side accoutrements as desired, such as sour cream, salsa or pico de gallo


*Notes

My homemade spice blends do not have salt in them. Be mindful of the sodium content in whatever seasoning you use, so you don’t overdo it on additional salt while preparing the dish. If you’d like to try my Fire & Brimstone, see the ingredients listed at the end of the post.


Instructions


  1. In a large bowl, combine kosher salt with enough hot water to cover both sweet potatoes completely. Allow the potatoes to rest in this quick brine for about 20 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 400° F, with rack in center of the oven.
  3. Remove potatoes from brine and dry completely with paper towels. Use a sharp knife to cut an “X” about 3/4″ deep into the top of each sweet potato. This will be an “escape valve” for steam as the potato bakes. Place the potatoes on a parchment lined baking sheet.
  4. Bake the sweet potatoes for about 1 hour plus 15 minutes, or until soft enough to squeeze easily with a towel. About halfway through baking time, remove the pan and carefully cut the X marks a little bit deeper, but not all the way through.
  5. Near the end of baking time, heat olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add onions, red bell pepper, jalapeno (if using) and corn. Sauté until onions are softened and translucent, about five minutes. Add black beans to the mixture and toss to heat through.
  6. Transfer sweet potatoes to serving plates. Carefully squeeze open the potato, using the X marks to guide them open. Use a fork to lightly smash the potato. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  7. Divide the shredded cheese directly onto the hot potato, then top with the bean-corn mixture.
  8. Use a sharp paring knife to score the avocado flesh for easy scooping. Divide the avocado onto the plates as a side to the sweet potato. Sprinkle with cilantro, give it a squeeze of fresh lime and serve.

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Fire & Brimstone Spice Blend

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire! This is a recipe blend I developed after repeated disappointment with all the salt in commercial blends. I use a variety of pepper ingredients, from mild and fruity to hot and smoky, and it works well as a sprinkle-on seasoning, chili add-in or even a dry rub on steaks or roasts. Adjust the amounts of any ingredient to suit your preferences. This recipe makes about 1/2 cup of spice blend. Store in an airtight jar in a cool, dry cabinet.

2 Tbsp. granulated garlic

2 Tbsp. ground black pepper

1 tsp. cayenne pepper (hot)

1 1/2 tsp. ground ancho pepper (mildly hot, fruity)

1 1/2 tsp. ground chipotle pepper (medium hot, smoky)

1 tsp. dried chipotle flakes (substitute additional ground chipotle if you cannot find these)

1 1/2 tsp. cumin (mild, smoky)

1 1/2 tsp dried thyme leaves


“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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Roasted Garlic (a.k.a. best flavor ever)

Something magical happens to garlic when you wrap it in foil and put it in the oven. All the pungent, sharp spiciness fades like a bad memory as it becomes entirely different—creamy, mellow, warm and nutty.

In our kitchen, roasted garlic gets plenty of action, particularly at the holidays when we are making casseroles, gravies, appetizers and roast meats. If you are not roasting your own garlic, it’s a good time to start, especially in advance of many of the recipes I’ll be offering over the next week. You’ll save a lot of time and money over buying it pre-roasted, and I promise you this—you’ll never want to go back to any store-bought substitute. Roasting garlic is simple to do, and it doesn’t require any special equipment or gadgets.

Before I break it down into steps, let’s take a moment to explore the world of garlic to better understand more about it and how this roasting “magic” happens.

What gives raw garlic a sharp flavor?

Garlic belongs to the same botanical family (allium) as onions, leeks and chives. All of them contain organosulfur compounds (most notably allicin), which contribute to the strong aroma as well as the sharp, biting flavor. You may not know that the way you cut garlic can affect the flavor of it in a dish. When used in whole cloves, it is relatively mild. Slices are stronger, and chopped garlic really exaggerates the sharpness because of the release of the oils within the cloves.

How long has garlic been used in cooking?

A mighty long time! Food historians estimate that garlic had culinary uses in ancient China and Egypt as long as 4,000 years ago. There’s even a passage in the Bible to corroborate claims of garlic’s longstanding place in our diets. The verses are embedded in the Old Testament story of Moses trying his darnedest to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. A group of complainers started grousing about the manna that God provided to them each day for nourishment along the way. All they could think about was how great everything “used to be.” (Hmm, such clamoring seems somehow familiar.)

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite: we never see anything but this manna!”

Numbers 11:4-5, New International Version

Garlic’s prevalence eventually spread throughout the Asian and European continents and pretty much everywhere else, and I’d be hard-pressed to name a cuisine today that does not use garlic.

Is garlic good for you?

Maybe, but you should always check with your doctor before assuming that it’s safe to ingest garlic in large quantity or concentrated form. Anecdotes on the internet may suggest that chewing raw garlic does everything from preventing hangovers to curing cancer, but please be smart. There are mixed results from actual medical research, and for people with certain pre-existing conditions or those who take certain prescription medications, too much (or any amount of) garlic can cause more harm than good. In moderation among relatively healthy people, garlic delivers a good dose of B vitamins, manganese, phosphorus, iron and zinc. It has a wonderful taste, but it’s no wonder drug (sorry).

Can you give garlic to pets?

Please don’t. Though some “holistic” websites claim raw garlic is an effective way to prevent flea infestation in pets, the science shows any food from the allium family can be toxic to dogs and cats. For safety’s sake (and for the love of your fur babies), consult a licensed veterinarian.

What about the legends of garlic and vampires?

It is well-documented (c’mon, we’ve all seen the movies) that eating raw garlic provides protection against vampires and other evil forces. It is also a highly effective and diplomatic way to bring a bad first date to an immediate end. Or so I’m told.

Why does roasting garlic change its flavor?

Allicin, the organosulfuric compound that makes garlic “stinky,” becomes neutralized when it reaches 140° F and is converted to a different compound called polysulfides. The flavor shifts from “sharp” to “mellow” and even somewhat sweet. This conversion can be achieved during careful sautéing or frying, but more easily and consistently by slow roasting.

Can I roast garlic in the microwave?

Nope. It may soften a bit, but the texture and flavor will be all wrong, and the best you can hope for is a small mess in the microwave. And that lingering smell…phew. Don’t rush it.

How do you keep roasted garlic?

We go through it pretty fast at our house, so we usually just keep it wrapped in its roasting foil near the onion basket on the counter. If it will be several days or more before you plan to use it, I’d recommend transferring the roasted garlic to a covered container in the fridge.

Ready to make some? Gather up this very short list of ingredients, and let’s get started!

When we have a big cooking event approaching, I roast a bunch of garlic at once. We did 10 bulbs this day!

Ingredients

fresh whole bulbs of garlic

extra virgin olive oil (or spray)

aluminum foil

Instructions

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 350° F.
  2. Peel away most of the dry “paper” layer that protects the garlic, leaving only the layer closest to the cloves. This assists with more even roasting, and minimal mess when you are ready to use the garlic.
  3. Use a sharp knife to carefully cut the top off the entire bulb of garlic. It’s best to lay the garlic on its side to do this. If the individual cloves are offset at different heights, you can use the tip of a paring knife to expose the shorter ones.
  4. Place the cloves (individually or two at a time) on a square of aluminum foil, and wrap the foil up the sides to create a bundle, but leave it open at the top. Drizzle or spray oil lightly over the exposed tops of the cloves.
  5. Close up the foil tightly and bake, either on a cookie sheet or in a skillet, for about an hour. The garlic doesn’t take up much space in the oven, so I usually do this while I’m also baking a roast, a casserole or a loaf of bread.

The color of roasted garlic may vary, depending on your oven temperature, the age of the garlic and the length of roasting time. Once it is soft and easily squeezed from the cloves, it’s done, even if it has a somewhat “blonde” color. We usually let it roast until it is a deep golden shade.

To use the roasted garlic, simply turn the bulb upside down and gently squeeze the sides. The soft cloves will slide right out into your bowl or recipe. Add roasted garlic to soups, dips, hummus, vegetables, spreads, sauces or meats, or enjoy it in its simplest form by spreading it right onto crackers or crostini.


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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Snakes in the Pumking Patch (a beer cocktail for Halloween)

Here’s another grown-up beverage offering for Halloween week, and my series of “spooky” cocktails. I realize that not everyone enjoys the taste of bourbon or other liquors, and I’m just beginning to explore the wide array of cocktails that are made with wine and beer. One that comes up frequently in my Pinterest feed is a “snakebite,” which is a layered cocktail made of hard cider and lager or stout beer.

The color of a “snakebite” drink depends on whether you layer a lager beer or a stout over the hard cider. (image from brooklynbrewshop.com)

It looks cool, like a classic black and tan (or a tan and tan, depending on the type of beer), but the fermented apple base gives it a distinctly tart seasonal flavor, and that’s what I wanted to emphasize for my Halloween drink series. I thought, “what if I take that seasonal aspect to the nth degree by mixing it with my favorite seasonal beer?”

If you missed my earlier post about this brew (Hello, Pumking!) you can revisit that for proper introduction to what is, in my opinion, the BEST pumpkin ale ever, and I’m not just saying that because we were born in the same part of upstate New York. My opinion is shared by enough other people that Pumking’s maker, Southern Tier Brewing, has expanded the brand to include a nitro version, a cold brew version and even a small batch whiskey. The newer offerings aren’t readily available in my part of North Carolina, but I’ll keep loving original Pumking until the shelves go bare. Then I’ll wait patiently until next autumn, the same way Linus stood guard in the pumpkin patch, waiting for the arrival of the Great Pumpkin.

For my Halloween version of a snakebite, I’ve layered the Pumking over a hard cider, but I wasn’t satisfied with any old hard cider. Nope, I tripped down the craft aisle until I found one that is also enhanced with pumpkin and spice. I found it, of course, in the pumpkin spice capital of everywhere, Trader Joe’s.

Doc’s Cider hails from another part of upstate New York, and this pumpkin spiced version is delightfully bright and crisp.
My beloved Pumking, of course, is from Southern Tier Brewing Co.

Ingredients

6 oz. pumpkin spice hard cider

6 oz. Pumking (or other pumpkin ale, if you must)

Layering a beer drink is easy to do, but it only works if the two ingredients have different specific gravity weight. In the classic drink, it works because Guinness ale is dry and light so it hovers neatly over the sweeter cider. Layering is not really necessary for my version of this drink, given that the cider and Pumking are virtually the same color anyway. Give it a try if you’d like (I’ll show you how in the slideshow), or just pour them in together. Either way, the resulting blend of tart, crisp cider and creamy, spicy ale is something quite special and it goes down very easy, but watch your step—as the name implies, these guys will definitely sneak up on you!

This Halloween-themed beer cocktail is super easy to make in about 30 seconds, and it was a great way to wash down our Sloppy Dogs! Recipe for these yummy treats coming Friday!


You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or products for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀


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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Lemon Mushroom Chicken

Three favorite key ingredients, plus onions, garlic, butter and a splash of white wine—it sounds simple, because it is. This is a delicious entrée I like to call a “Sunday Supper” because there are a few extra steps that make it special without making it complicated. A recipe that takes a little more time is what I love, in part because it feels relaxing to prepare food slowly with more intention, but mostly because as the meal develops and the house becomes increasingly filled with savory aromas, it creates a tension and anticipation that isn’t often present with a quickly cooked weeknight meal.

The result of the extra care and patience required for this dish is well worth the time and effort—tender, juicy bites of chicken with a rich, onion-y mushroom gravy-like coating. It’s satisfying and comforting, in a way that only a home-cooked meal can be. You can taste the love in this kind of food. The mushrooms contribute an earthiness that is not overwhelming, and the freshly squeezed lemon, thyme and white wine give the impression of something far more gourmet than the simple instructions I’m about to describe.

I prefer to make this recipe on the stove in a skillet because it’s usually just me and my husband at the dinner table, and I like to keep my counter space open. But if you are doubling the recipe and happen to have a large electric skillet, that would be a terrific option—provided it has a cover, which is an important part of finishing the recipe. I’ll walk you through preparation of the dish, but if you’re ready to dive straight into it, you can scroll to the bottom to download a printed copy of the recipe. But then, of course, you’d miss the pictures. 🙂

A quick twist of the fork is enough to grab a bite of this lemon mushroom chicken. How scrumptious and tender is that?

Here’s how to make it.

First, the chicken breasts are sliced and pounded thin to ensure tender, uniform pieces. I do this myself at home because it’s an easy way to save the extra cost of pre-sliced cutlets. It’s OK if you don’t have a meat tenderizer; you can use the bottom of a small pot to do the same. Next, season the pieces with salt and pepper and a couple of pinches of dried thyme. It’s important to do this first, because you want the seasoning in the chicken—not just on the coating. Then drag the cutlets through some seasoned flour and let them rest while chopping a sweet onion and a couple cloves of garlic.


Clean and slice a full package of fresh mushrooms. It may seem overkill for a four-serving recipe, but they cook down considerably and they are a key component of the dish. My favorite type is cremini (sometimes called baby portabella, though technically they are not), but white button mushrooms or shiitake would work fine as well. Are you on the fence about the right way to clean mushrooms? I used to be afraid that rinsing them would make them soggy, but I learned a few years ago that mushrooms don’t absorb much water unless you soak them (thank you for that, Alton Brown!), so go ahead with a thorough cold water rinse then use a clean paper towel to dry them and wipe away any remaining debris. Finish the prep by trimming the stems and slicing them into 3/8” thick, perfectly uniform slices. Say what? Here’s how to do the slicing part in less than one minute:


My egg slicer is made of metal, with cutting wires that are sturdy enough to tackle slicing mushrooms and strawberries, and I love that I get clean, uniform slices with minimal effort. Maybe someday I’ll use this thing to slice eggs. If you don’t have an egg slicer, use your best sharp knife, and don’t sweat over the thickness—just slice them as evenly as you can, but not paper thin.

The onions go into a heated skillet with olive oil, but you’ll notice in the photos that I don’t take them very far toward caramelization. You want them to be nice and soft, so keep the heat in the medium-low range and cook just until they soften and begin to look translucent. Add the mushrooms in batches and cook them without crowding the pan. These guys give off a lot of moisture when they cook, and if you have too many at once, they will steam rather than brown. Take your time, and when the first handful of mushrooms reaches that “lightly browned” stage, move them aside and add another handful. When the whole batch is finished, add the chopped garlic and sauté briefly, then transfer the mixture to a bowl.


Give the cutlets another quick dip through the seasoned flour while you melt butter in the same skillet. It’s not unusual for the flour to absorb moisture from the chicken during the initial rest, and they should be completely (but lightly) coated before they hit the hot butter. This will create a roux-like coating on the chicken, and the broth you add later will break that down into delicious gravy as it simmers.

When the butter is melted and bubbly, carefully arrange the cutlets into the pan in a single layer, again taking care not to crowd the pan. Depending on how many pieces you have, this may need to be done in batches as well. Turn the cutlets over when they are a nice golden brown on the underside, and stack them on top of each other when both sides are done, to make room in the pan for any remaining cutlets.

Remove the browned cutlets and rest them on top of the reserved mushroom-onion mixture. This will make room for you to de-glaze the skillet, bringing all the beautiful browned bits back into the dish. Reduce the heat to low, then working quickly, pour in the white wine and use a whisk or other utensil to scrape up those flavorful remnants. Squeeze in the lemon juice and swirl the pan to combine. Place the chicken cutlets back into the skillet and pile the mushrooms and onions on top. Carefully pour in chicken broth, but only enough to slightly cover the chicken. Give the skillet a gentle shake to help the broth get under and around the chicken, then cover the skillet and walk away.


The chicken will simmer at this low temperature for 35 to 40 minutes. It will be fully cooked well before this time, but the long simmer will result in the tenderness and richness I described at the beginning. What’s great about a recipe like this is that while the magic is quietly happening in the skillet, I have time to tidy up the prep dishes, set the table and enjoy a glass of wine with my husband. This is also a good time to prep whatever vegetable or salad I plan to serve. When the main dish is more involved, as this one is, I usually opt for a simple vegetable side. The lemon mushroom chicken deserves center stage.

I love how the sauce becomes part of the chicken, rather than being poured over it. This dinner will melt in your mouth.

For this meal, I roasted fresh asparagus. If you are cooking asparagus some other way, I will be so bold as to declare you have been missing out! Try roasting once and you’ll see what I mean. Rinse and trim the stalks, arrange them on a parchment lined baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and roll them around to coat. Give them a little salt and pepper to taste, and pop them into a 400° F oven for 15 minutes. They should be slightly tender and retain a bright green color. Easy, yet so elegant.


And there you have it—this “Sunday Supper” dish takes a little more time than an average weeknight meal, but the payoff for your patience is a tender portion of delicate chicken, covered in savory mushrooms and fully enveloped in a rich, gravy-like coating. We like this on its own with a fresh roasted vegetable or salad, but it would also be beautiful on top of your favorite mashed potatoes, rice or linguine.

Ingredients

1.5 lb. package skinless, boneless chicken breast (or same weight of prepared thin cutlets, if you prefer)

Salt, pepper and 1/2 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium sweet onion, sliced into crescent shapes

8 oz. package fresh cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 or 3 cloves of fresh garlic, finely chopped

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter (cold from the fridge is fine)

1/3 cup dry white wine (I use pinot grigio, or sometimes dry vermouth as substitute)

1 fresh lemon 

1/2 to 3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth (use enough to just cover the browned cutlets)


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If you make this lemon mushroom chicken, please let me know in the comments how it turned out for you.