Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Summer Salad



We celebrated Father's Day in the traditional way - with a multi-course meat dinner! It's a lot of fun having my parents and my in-laws in the same town. And when I say "fun," I mean we can celebrate holidays together, thus turning every minor event into a gourmet potluck. What other kind of fun is there?

This was also our first time to have people over to our new house for dinner. Husband and I teamed up to create an easy, casual meal that was just perfect to celebrate our dear-old-dads. Mops even donned a new party dress for the occasion. 


While I was busy torturing my small dog making appetizers, Husband handled chicken on the smoker (possibly the best smoked chicken I've ever tasted). He rubbed the chicken down with apple cider vinegar, then used our current favorite rub (Butt Rub - that's the real name, I promise), and garlic salt for flavor. He smoked the chicken - which included wings, breasts, thighs, and drumsticks (all skin-on, bone-in) at 200 Fahrenheit. It was fantastic. Look at the bark on that chicken! 


The chicken ended up stealing the show. But, I never let fear of overkill run my kitchen, do I? So, in addition to the chicken, we bought an array of locally-made sausages (some of my favorite flavors: blue cheese & black pepper, plus red wine & Parmesan). I made a dad-approved appetizer (my pimento cheese dip). On the side, we had my mother-in-law's squash casserole (I didn't even get a picture of it because it was so delicious that I couldn't take the time to arrange it nicely) and smoked baked beans (Husband's favorite). 

My mom - the undisputed Salad Queen of the South, someone get her a tiara - made a fantastic, garden-fresh salad with corn, basil, avocado, tomatoes, mango, and more. Although I love to make and eat salad, I lack her ingenuity. I could more appropriately be dubbed the "Girl Who Thinks Anything Served on Greens is Salad." 


Usually when I make salad, I draw from the esteemed "kitchen sink" school of thought. Is it produce? Add it to the salad. Sometimes, though, one of my salads is worth writing down for future use. This is one of those salads. I started out by marinating the shrimp for an hour in an Italian flavor blend (including basil-infused olive oil, which I didn't note below because it's not necessary at all - just a nice touch), and added some lemon juice and garlic to the asparagus. These two ingredients - the shrimp and the asparagus - are grilled to perfection, then are tossed with an interesting blend of fresh fruits (pineapple), vegetables (hearts of palm and radish), and greens (arugula and cilantro). I didn't make a proper salad dressing, I just drizzled white wine vinegar and more of my infused olive oil over the bowl and lightly tossed it all together. 

It's a perfect make-ahead dish that you can impress guests with at arrival to a summer dinner party. The shrimp and asparagus are great chilled. Just grill them, fix the salad, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until right before serving. 

Grilled Shrimp and Asparagus Summer Salad
Serves six as an appetizer / side salad

You will need:
  • 1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined 
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic
  • 1 teaspoon Italian spice blend
  • 1 pound asparagus, trimmed
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 cup radish, finely chopped
  • 2 cups arugula
  • 1 cup pineapple, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro, finely chopped
  • One 14 ounce can hearts of palm, drained and rinsed, sliced into rings
  • 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Optional ingredients to consider: fresh avocado, chickpeas, grilled corn, fresh basil, and roasted red peppers. 

Method:
  • Thaw shrimp to room temperature (if frozen). Prepare a marinade with 1/4 cup of olive oil (reserve the remaining olive oil), balsamic vinegar, and one teaspoon of minced fresh garlic. Marinate for at least one hour, or up to three hours. 
  • Prepare washed and trimmed asparagus for the grill by arranging in a single layer on a plate or tray, then drizzling with 1 1/2 tablespoons of lemon juice, a bit of olive oil, and the remaining teaspoon of fresh garlic. 
  • Heat grill to medium-high heat and add shrimp and asparagus. Scatter Italian seasoning blend evenly over the shrimp and asparagus. Cook for about four minutes per side, until starting to brown, then turn over and cook for about three minutes. Remove from heat and place on a clean tray. 
  • Toss remaining vegetables in a large bowl. Add shrimp after it has cooled for a couple of minutes. 
  • Let asparagus cool slightly, then slice in thirds for more "bite sized" pieces and add to the salad bowl. 
  • Top with white wine vinegar, remaining olive oil, and salt and pepper. Toss gently to combine, then serve in a large bowl. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

Summer Grill Inspiration


Late spring has ushered in days that start out chilly and tip dangerously close to hot during the afternoons. The long days are sunny into the early evenings and the intense rain is subsiding as we get ready for summer. 

It's at this exact time of year that I'm the most comfortable outside - if even for a brief few weeks. This is because the weather has warmed up enough that people have decided it's time to turn the thermostat down to about 65 degrees, such that every office, home, and restaurant feels slightly morgue-like. 

It's at this exact time of the year, coincidentally, that I switch from minimizing my exposure to the cold of winter and chill of early spring to minimizing my exposure to the cold indoors. As the thermostat pendulum swings into the warmer weather, I plot ways to spend as much time outside as it takes to cook dinner without working up a sweat. So, I have taken up the tongs and fired up the grill, with a t-shirt on while I'm outside and a hoodie at the ready for when I have to go back inside. Here are some of the things that I've been grilling lately for your inspiration:

Chicken Wings

These chicken wings had a great tangy flavor from the generous portion of red wine vinegar that I used in the marinade. The marinade is a blend of red wine vinegar, dry ranch seasoning, hot sauce, olive oil, garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper, and Cajun seasoning. 




I served these wings with grilled zucchini, bell pepper, and a few slices* (three each - I counted and weighed each portion carefully!) of marinated steak. 

*Pro tip: freeze individual portions of meat with different marinades, label carefully, and be a weeknight dinner hero with an effortless meal. 




Steak

Steak marinated with Worcestershire sauce, garlic, soy sauce, olive oil, a bit of brown sugar, and black pepper adds a delicious, savory flavor.




I went a different direction for a Mexican twist on steak with a marinade that was a blend of olive oil, lime juice, pureed cilantro and parsley, garlic, and Mexican hot sauce (my favorite is Tapatio). 




Chicken Breast

This chicken breast was marinated in soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, mustard, olive oil, garlic, black pepper, and honey. Right before cooking, I wrapped the chicken with thick-cut bacon and secured with a toothpick, then added a touch of cayenne to the bacon. I topped the chicken with some melted muenster for the last couple of minutes on the grill. 



Portobello Mushrooms

These stuffed, marinated portobello mushrooms are a bit less healthy, but are fantastic. The marinade is a mixture of white wine, basil-infused olive oil, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar with thyme, garlic salt, and oregano. 




The mushrooms are stuffed with sautéed zucchini and summer squash cooked in olive oil with finely shredded onions, chopped sundried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, pesto, crushed red pepper flakes, and a mixture of chèvre and cream cheese. Set the filling aside, covered and wrapped, at room temperature while you cook the inside of the mushrooms. Spoon the filling in as the underside grills to perfection and heats the filling. 



I also used grilled portobello mushroom as the base for leftover smoked chicken, fresh buffalo mozzarella, and roasted cherry tomatoes. 


Kebabs

I made kebabs last weekend with jump shrimp, marinated steak, mushrooms, red and yellow bell peppers, zucchini, onions, and - wait for it - brussels sprouts. Brussels sprouts cook really nicely on the grill and enhance their slightly bitter taste. 


And this kebab dinner has zucchini, yellow squash, steak, and cabbage. 


What are your favorite marinades and things to grill? 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Italian Roasted Cauliflower with Olives & Tomatoes



Easy, healthy, flavorful, and self-sufficient. Those adjectives comprise my "big four" for weeknight cooking. When I say self-sufficient, I mean that the dish needs to just cook on its own without too much fussing required from the cook. I just finished a long day of work {in heels} and a thirty mile commute. I'm not in the mood most nights to delicately craft an exquisite feast. We eat well during the week, but that's because over the years I've gotten quite good at doing prep work ahead of time and planning meals that rely on re-purposed leftovers. 

The leftovers from the first night's serving of my Italian roasted cauliflower, for example, were enjoyed on night two on a bed of spaghetti squash (served hot with chevre, garlic salt, and parsley) with grilled pork, as showcased below:


And pictured again, because is there anything better in the world than a roasted tomato that bursts in your mouth?



Another leftover iteration included roasted sweet potatoes and crumbled chevre: 


The key to a good leftover meal is making something versatile enough to take on the flavor of other foods after the first round is enjoyed. Cauliflower is naturally adept at absorbing flavors and is one of my "foundation foods" (I've really got the cooking for two thing down to a science when I have coined my own phrases, haven't I?). 

This recipe, which is suitable for vegans and vegetarians, has a couple less dynamic components that I might normally shy away from with the addition of olives and tomatoes. It's not like I can turn the leftovers into a Thai curry with olives. But, I love the intense saltiness of olives paired with the acidity of the tomatoes and the mellow cauliflower. And I don't mind committing to eating versions of Mediterranean dinners for the rest of the week. 


Italian Roasted Cauliflower with Olives & Tomatoes
Serves four as a side dish

You will need:

  • 1 head cauliflower, chopped into bite-sized chunks
  • 8 large green olives, pitted and sliced
  • 6 sundried tomatoes, cut into thin slices
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry white wine (optional)
  • 1/2 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 12 cherry tomatoes, assorted colors, sliced in half
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon basil, red pepper flakes, and oregano (adjust to taste/modify for fresh herbs)
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
Method:
  • Preheat the oven to 375 Fahrenheit
  • Add all ingredients to a large, oven-proof dish, drizzling the olive oil in last. 
  • Toss the mixture to evenly combine. 
  • Bake for 30-40 minutes, until cauliflower is golden brown.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Bacon & Tomato Smoked Cabbage Wedges


Like anyone with a bit of British cooking heritage, I really, really enjoy cabbage. I just don't understand why it hasn't achieved the popularity that I think it deserves. There's nothing simpler than sauteing chopped cabbage with a bit of butter and seasoning with salt and pepper for a side dish. Husband tried to refuse to sample cabbage cooked this way when we first started dating, but after some convincing (ah, the leverage that I had back before we got married!) he took a bite and raised his eyebrows. He thought it was fantastic. 

Now, a few years later, he's still a far cry from a cabbage fiend, but he doesn't mind a bit of green, buttery goodness on the side every now and then. And due to his almost annoying prowess on the smoker, I've been forced to content myself with making side dishes to serve  with his flavorful smoked meats. Who can compete with that chicken?


Me. I'll take that challenge. This recipe is my attempt at making non-meats on the smoker. We have a fantastic cookbook that includes a smoked cabbage recipe, but I found the recipe a bit bland and the flavor combination, frankly, somewhat strange. So I did the normal thing: add bacon! My smoked cabbage has bacon, tomatoes, onion, pepper, garlic powder, butter, and soy sauce, all nicely arranged below: 


I recommend a serving size of about one quarter of a medium cabbage per person. The recipe is scaled to two people, but the smoker is a forgiving cooking vehicle. Just adjust it however you please. All you do is arrange the ingredients in an aluminum foil bundle and pop in the smoker for three hours at a low heat (I don't think ours was above 250 F). 

You can use the three hour cook time productively, or you can spend the time making collages that compare your dog to a sloth (they look like twins! Same litter!). 


Since everything in this dish is either pre-cooked or otherwise safe to eat raw, you don't need to be highly precise on the cooking time. It's more about the smoky flavor and texture that you're seeking. Although I didn't get any pictures of it, I topped the cabbage with feta right before serving. Divine. 



Bacon & Tomato Smoked Cabbage Wedges
Yields 2 large servings

You will need:
  • 1/2 head cabbage (1 quarter of a head of cabbage per person)
  • 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 5 bacon slices, cooked and chopped into large chunks*
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 12 to 20 cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1/2 Vidalia onion (1/4 onion per serving), thinly sliced
  • 1/2 stick butter, sliced
*I like to cook bacon in the oven at 350 F with a scattering of brown sugar and cayenne pepper until golden brown (about 10 minutes)

Method:
  • Lay a sheet of aluminum foil flat. Arrange all ingredients in the middle, then fold aluminum foil over to create a bundle. 
  • Smoke at 200-250 for three hours, or until cabbage is soft and yielding.
  • Serve hot, topped with feta (optional). 

Friday, May 1, 2015

Mexican Fiesta Shower

We co-hosted a couple's stock the bar shower this weekend for a couple of friends who would have been elated had we just opened a bag of tortilla chips and unscrewed a jar of salsa. They are very easy to please, which made pleasing them just that much more fun.

This should really be the last party-related post shared here or anywhere else. I've found the definitive answer to every host trying to determine what theme to use for a shower or party. You can de-activate your Pinterest boards. 

The answer: Mexican Fiesta.

From the inexpensive decorations to the delicious food and plentiful libation options, the theme was easily pulled together and provided a relaxing backdrop for a fantastic shower. 

First: the decor. 


We had two pinatas, one each for the bride and groom, which we filled with things that they like (flower seeds for the bride and little plastic bottles of Fireball for the groom). No one really outgrows pinatas, do they? 

The co-hostess has amazing handwriting. How adorable is this "fiesta like there's no manana" chalkboard? And the mini pinatas. I mean, come on. 


There are hundreds of inexpensive touches available online. I am a big fan of Amazon Prime, where I found these mini maracas. 


Yes, those are luchador masks covering the water decanters. 


And the co-hostess found a sombrero with a veil for the bride to wear, plus more papel picado banners to attach to the outdoor lighting. 


Second, the food. A Mexican shower is great because you can decide how much you want to do yourself and how much you want to "outsource." 

We are lucky to live in an area with tons of Mexican grocery stores that sell pre-marinated meats ready to throw on the grill (and they taste infinitely less sugary and chemical-filled than the marinated meats you can buy at the chain grocery stores). We also have plenty of Mexican restaurants that serve a wide variety of salsas, quesos, and dips. We picked up several different kinds of salsas and made a few of our own. 

From the store/restaurant: marinated steak, freshly-made tortillas (heavenly!), three kinds of queso, jalapeno ranch, and a few salsas. 

Homemade: pork, guacamole, mojitos, elote dip, quinoa salad with roasted butternut and zucchini, salsa, chimichurri, and tres leches cupcakes. 

A few of my contributions were from recipes that I have already posted. I made my Chimichurri, which we served as a tangy topping for the steak. I also made my Mexican corn dip, but this time I turned up the flavor by grilling the jalapenos and corn the day before the party.



Husband smoked pork overnight before the party and pulled it for street-style tacos. Right before serving he and other host crisped it slightly on the grill. Perfection. 


I made tres leches cupcakes using Taste of Home's recipe. The only modification that I made was folding in 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon into the batter and adding extra vanilla. 


As you can see, we had a great time putting the details into this party and our friends were ecstatic. Let me know if you ever need to borrow a sarape!



Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Pimento Cheese


Every so often I get a taste of something that captivates my taste buds beyond redemption. Infatuation. Obsession. All-consuming passion. This weekend, I fell under the spell of pimento cheese. I was served a pimento cheese appetizer with house-made bread and butter pickles at a rehearsal dinner on Friday night and ate not only my portion, but Husband's, and quite possible my tablemates' as well. 

I thought I was pretty sneaky, grabbing a bit here off of Husband's plate as he carried on normal conversation. But I was quickly noticed, and the table was made aware of my...pining. Public shaming over appetizers at a rehearsal dinner. New low? 

I've had pimento cheese on plenty of occasions, but the flavor hit me just so this time and I suddenly couldn't think of anything else I've ever cared about other than salty, smooth, rich pimento. 


After returning home on Sunday, I started jotting down notes for me to use when developing my own perfect pimento cheese. Re-reading my handwritten notes (which include rhetorical (?) questions like "Jalapeno?? WHAT? Mustard?!"), I have to admit that I've sounded like less of a crazy person. The finished product, pictured below, was so very worth the effort:


Good pimento cheese relies on the perfect balance of spice and cheese. The heat in this recipe was achieved with the most finely-minced jalapeno bits I've ever produced, plus cayenne pepper and hot sauce. Pro tip: always, always grate your cheddar off the block for pimento - don't buy shredded cheese. It just doesn't mix properly. 

Pimento cheese serving ideas:
  • Spread pimento on white bread and top with thick tomato slices and hot bacon for a sandwich.
  • Replace all or some of the cheese called for in macaroni and cheese or potatoes au gratin with pimento. 
  • Serve as a spread with crudites (celery, mini bell pepper, carrot sticks, radishes, etc.). 
  • Use in a hot dip with spicy Rotel tomatoes and ground beef. Bake until bubbling hot and serve with tortilla chips. 
  • Grilled pimento cheese sandwiches. 
  • Spread generously on top of a burger. 

Any bets on how long it will be before I eat myself sick and never, ever want to see pimento cheese again? 

Pimento Cheese
Yields ~1 1/2 cups

You will need:
  • 4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
  • 2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley (or 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
  • 4 tablespoons pimentos
  • 1/2 jalapeno
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup toasted pecans or walnuts, chopped 
  • Dash hot sauce (to taste, optional)

Method:
  • Combine cream cheese, grated sharp cheddar, and mayonnaise in a medium mixing bowl on medium speed until the consistency is even. Add spices and continue to mix. 
  • Finely chop pimentos and add to the bowl. 
  • Remove the seeds of the jalapeno and finely mince, then stir into the cream cheese mixture. 
  • Add lemon juice and hot sauce (if using) and mix for a couple more minutes, until the consistency is even and the pimentos have broken down somewhat (the mixture will be slightly orange). 
  • Scatter toasted nuts on top of the pimento cheese immediately prior to serving. 
  • The dish can be stored in the refrigerator for two months in an airtight container. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Avocado Chimichurri

 

Christmas may be heralded as the most wonderful time of the year, but I think that's pretty unfair to spring. Oh spring. I'm so glad you've arrived. The sun is still up when I get home and we have a couple of hours of daylight left to grill on the patio and catch up, sans television background. 

To stave off the unhealthy snacking cravings (intensified by the smell emanating from the grill), I recommend serving a round of avocado chimichurri as an appetizer. 

You start with fresh green things, including limes, cilantro, parsley, jalapeno, and green onions. 


You add a few more things, then you puree until smooth and toss with chopped avocado. That's it. The whole process, start to finish, takes no more than 10 minutes. You can use a food processor or blender to make a perfectly smooth flavor. I make this with my immersion blender to achieve a coarse consistency (I like finding a few leafy bits here and there). 


Chimichurri is a versatile sauce. You can use it as a marinade (especially fantastic with steak), as a topping (throw some on grilled zucchini and tell me your life isn't better), or as an appetizer and salad dressing, as I've done here. 

You can use these tasting spoons for aesthetic purposes, or to micromanage make sure no one has more than his or her fair share. 


Or if you're the trusting type, a small plate works just as well. 


But I prefer spoons. And keenly observing my dining companions. This dish verges on too delicious to share. 

I recommend serving the chimichurri with about half of a ripe avocado per person. I use about three avocados when I make the full batch. 
  


As a salad addict (an addiction that complements my other favorites - cookie dough and wine), I love to add baby kale, chopped cherry tomatoes, and chevre to a bowl of avocado chimichurri.  


The chimichurri flavors intensify overnight (do not add avocado until immediately prior to serving). This is a great dish to make the day before, refrigerate, and enjoy the next day. You can adjust the heat somewhat by removing or keeping the jalapeno seeds. 

Avocado Chimichurri
Yields ~ 1 1/2 cups

You will need:
  • 1 bunch parsley (~1/2 cup, when chopped)
  • 1 bunch cilantro (~1/2 cup, when chopped)
  • 1 jalapeno, chopped
  • 3 green onions
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
  • Juice of 2 fresh limes
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 avocado per person (use 3 avocados for the entire batch)
Method:
  • Coarsely chop parsley, cilantro, green onions, and garlic.
  •  Puree all ingredients (except avocado) in a food processor to desired consistency. 
    • I use an immersion blender because I prefer a coarse texture. 
  • Transfer to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate until ready to serve. The flavor becomes more intense on the second day.