It’s a Date

Sometimes life is so simple – right? I want to be that person with the simple life – I used to think I was that person with the simple, awesome life. Awesome – yes; simple – not quite.

But what comes up must come down, they say. And while this might sound like a complaint, it assuredly is not. Life is definitely good.

One of my favorite things of late is getting together with my favorite newlyweds, Brook & Katherine. We cook, we eat, we drink, and we just plain hang out. Sometimes Katherine falls asleep, but it’s only because of the wine and not because we’re boring, right Kath??!! We play with their cuter-than-a-newborn-baby doggy, we laugh at the cats, and we get our groove on (or at least, we pretend to…) with the Kinect dancing game, whatever it’s called.

It’s good times – simple and awesome.

And it’s even awesome-er when bacon and goat cheese are involved. What’s not to adore? I’d spent the majority of last Saturday hanging with my pal, Caroline (which means that we hang out but she also puts me to work in her kitchen), so when it came time to get ready for the K+B extravaganza, I knew I only had it in me to bake a cake (yeah, that’s all – can you believe it??!), so I put the Hubs to work on the appetizer.

It’s not like he was slaving over the stove, people. And check out the recipe if you don’t believe me. Four ingredients – I don’t think I’ve ever posted something with four ingredients – maybe a drink??!! Four wonderful, scrumptious ingredients, all rolled up together, baked until crispy and oozy, and devoured.

These dates are holiday-ish, festive, easy, and entirely portable. If it’s not too late, take these to your holiday party, but be sure to snag a couple before you share. Remember – the holidays are all about giving, but also a little bit about getting, too!

Bacon-Wrapped Dates
chiknpastry recipe; makes 16

printable version

ingredients
4 oz goat cheese, room temperature
2 T almonds, roughly chopped
16 dates
8 slices of thick-cut bacon

instructions
preheat oven to 375 F.

combine goat cheese and chopped almonds in a small bowl and set aside.

slice dates on one side and remove pit. stuff each date with goat cheese / almond mixture and squeeze together (dates should be packed with cheese!).

slice bacon strips in half lengthwise and wrap each half around a date. secure with a toothpick or place seam-side down on a baking sheet. bake 20-30 minutes, until bacon is crispy (thicker bacon will take longer). let cool for a few minutes and devour!

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An Uncanny Hankering

I am a big fan of the burger. One of the very first eateries we encountered here in Chicago was a lovely bar, right around the corner from where I now work, called O’Neil’s (sadly, it’s gone now and replaced by a lame clothing store).  They had big, fat, juicy burgers, great fries, and of course, the much-needed brewsky to wash it all down. The outdoor seating, fairly new to us Southern transplants, was icing on the cake, so to speak.

Midway through grad school, a few of us discovered the Chili’s build your own burger special (how we found it is beyond me, as we certainly weren’t watching a lot of TV those days), and many dinners (and of course, brewskys) were consumed there – my “southwestern-style” burger and Cheryl’s  mushroom/swiss burger – the cessation of that special was more hurtful than having my fingernails yanked out. Well, close, at least. Very close.

While I do love a good burger, I certainly don’t eat them nearly as much as I used to, but now that M Burger is open on the north side of my building, I smell those damn burgers all the time – there isn’t much better than the smell of a grill, especially on a warm summer day, of which we’ve had quite a few lately. And while their standard burgers are extra-tasty, simple, and eerily reminiscent of McDonalds’ burgers (but much, much better, and fresher, and if possible to use this word in the same paragraph as burger, likely healthier), their vegetarian burger is out of this world. Sans patty, the filling is simply a large, thick, juicy beefsteak tomato, finished off with the basics and M Burger’s ‘special sauce’, which again, is probably a riff off the Golden Arches burger.

It’s safe to say that, during this month of vegetarianism, I have wanted nothing more than a juicy, all-beef burger. With bacon. Why, I’ve caught myself drooling at least twice in the middle of restaurants, the juice from the burgers dripping all over the diner’s hands, running down their arms. I wanted to bathe in it. But I used what class I have, which isn’t too much, and I continued to munch on my wheat berries, washing them down vigorously with a hefty glass of Malbec.

So unfortunately, we’re still not in the clear here (4 days left!), and for the time being, I’m going to give props to this black bean burger recipe I snagged from The Kitchen Sink. It’s the second black bean burger I’ve made this month (yes, I was trying desperately to satisfy a burger craving, and failing miserably), but only the first one I’ve liked. It’s loaded with enough fixin’s to make you forget, momentarily, that there’s no meat. Does it replace a ‘real’ burger? H, E, double hockey sticks, NO.

But it’ll work for this week….and in June, I’m going here and here. And for lunch Tuesday, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m heading straight to M Burger.

Black Bean Burgers
Adapted from The Kitchen Sink, who adapted from Gourmet; serves 4

ingredients
2 (14-ounce) cans organic black beans, rinsed and drained, divided
3 T 2% Greek yogurt
1/3 c plain dry bread crumbs
1 T g flax seeds (optional)
1 t g cumin
1 t dried oregano
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1/2 t chipotle chili powder
1/4 t kosher salt
1/4 c cilantro, chopped
juice of 1 lime
3 T canola oil
4 whole-wheat hamburger buns

Fixin’s: sliced avocado, spinach, red bell pepper slices, goat cheese, red onion

instructions
Pulse 1 can beans in a food processor with yogurt, bread crumbs, cumin, oregano, cayenne, chipotle chili powder, and salt until a mixture is coarsely chopped (will look light greyish and pasty). Transfer to a bowl and stir in cilantro and remaining can beans.  Add juice of lime (if mixture comes together well, use less than one lime; my lime was small).  Form mixture into 4 patties.

Preheat oven to 300 F. While burgers are cooking, slightly toast buns (optional).

Heat canola oil in a large skillet over med-hi until it shimmers. Cook burgers until outsides are crisp and lightly browned, turning once, about 5 minutes total. Serve on buns, along with the fixin’s.

Farrolicious



I think I got a little spoiled with being on break from school. We had good, homecooked dinners most weeknights and some days on the weekend. I had time to catch up (rather stay up to date as I had too much time to get behind) on my Food Network shows and not get too behind on my magazine reads. We had free weekends, although I welcome the busy weekends because they’re spent with family and friends. But now school is back in session and already five weeks in.

farrovinaigrette



Matter of fact, school is almost over. Hard to believe, but I’m 5 weeks away from a culinary ‘degree’. I think, after having graduated from 3 colleges, that I’ll call it quits with the schooling. Oh, and the loanage.

With only one weeknight of cooking, and the fact that it’s officially well into summer (finally), I’ve been more inclined to whip up some somewhat simple meals. You know, like panzanella salad. And this here, made with a new delicious friend of mine, farro.

marjoramgreen beans



I’m sure many of you may have never cooked with farro. But you should. It is a great addition to salads or even grilled veggies. A small bag’ll cost you about 8 buckaroonies but you’ll get many uses out of it.

It’s a rich, nutty grain (from Italy – don’t you just love those Italians?!) with many admirable qualities: higher in protein and fiber than many grains, a great source of complex carbohydrates, and supposedly a type of carbohydrate that can aid the body’s immune system. Farro is definitely a keeper and one you can assuredly take home to meet your parents. In fact, when you try it, you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life.

salad



I’m sharing a great starter recipe that utilizes a seasonal favorite, green beans. My mom will be so proud to know I eat more than a no thank you serving of beans. This dish reminds me of the panzanella salad – entirely flexible. You’ll notice I used those shredded carrots again. And definitely use marjoram rather than skipping this seldom-used herb. It has a lovely piney perfumey citrus taste and pairs well with the goat cheese. But if you insist, substitute oregano and use a bit less.

farro and veggie salad



Farro & Veggie Salad w/ Goat Cheese
Adapted from Bon Appetit, August 2009; Serves 4

printable recipe

This is a great weeknight meal. You can even prepare the salad in advance since it’s served cold. And in a pinch, I’m sure a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken would be just fine 🙂

ingredients
1/2 cup semi-pearled farro
3 T EVOO, divided
8 oz boneless, skinless, chicken breasts
12 oz green beans, trimmed and cut to 1 1/2″ pieces
2 cups fresh yellow corn kernels (~2 ears corn)
3 green onions, thinly sliced (~3/4 c)
1/2 c carrot, thinly sliced
1 T minced fresh marjoram
1/2 t kosher salt
2 T white wine vinegar
2 T minced shallot
1 t Dijon mustard
2 oz fresh goat cheese, crumbled

instructions
Cook farro in medium saucepan of boiling water until just tender, 20-25 minutes. Drain; cool.

Meanwhile, heat 1 T oil in medium skillet over med-hi. Add chicken and cook until golden brown, about 8 minutes. You can also grill the chicken, which is what I did for extra flavor. Cool and cut into 1/2″ to 3/4″ cubes. Cook green beans in saucepan of boiling salted water about 4 minutes and drain, rinsing with cold water. Pat dry.

Mix farro, chicken, and green beans in large bowl. Add corn, green onions, carrot.

Combine remaining 2 T oil, marjoram, 1/2 t salt in small bowl. Press w/ back of spoon to release flavor from marjoram. Whisk in vinegar, shallot, mustard. Pour over salad in bowl and toss to coat. Season w/ s&p.

Battle Strawberry: Life is Delicious

Strawberry Shortcake


What comes to mind when you hear the word childhood? Thanks be to that wee ol’ hippocampus (or maybe photography), a number of distinct memories comes to my mind. A favorite: riding shotgun with my daddy to the beach, top down in the Triumph, blonde hair blowing carelessly in the salty wind. Let’s not forget organizing the treehouse-building club (which now, knowing a treehouse was never built, I realize this was my parents’ way of “keeping us busy and outta their hair”), or making a music video with my bro using our first family camcorder (in the dinosaur 80’s when they weighed 50 lbs) that was an adaptation of “These Boots are Made for Walkin’” with a pair of boots moving, step by endless step, across the green shaggy carpet of our living room.


Last night was the third installment of the Iron Chef pot-luck party, and the reigning IC, Terri, had chosen ‘strawberries’ as the theme ingredient. Having quite an affinity to the juicy red ‘berry’, I considered it an excellent choice. And while thinking of things to make, a number of other childhood memories came into mind. In addition to my Strawberry Shortcake sheet set, complete with Custard, I also remembered those damned strawberry fields my parents made us visit every summer, and countless times. You see, strawberry pickin’ was a family event – the five of us would head over to the Cottle Farms location on Airport Road for a sweat-inducing, dirt-in-all-crevices-producing, hour of loading up those wooden gallon-sized baskets with tasty juicy, fresh-off-the-vine strawberries. They made their way into our fridge, our freezer, and of course, our bellies. And boy were they good. My favorite version of strawberries is simple – macerated in sugar, eaten plain or perhaps on top of vanilla ice cream or on those cake things you buy in packs of 6, topped with strawberries & whipped cream. We always had sugar-soaked strawberries in our fridge – and if we didn’t, gramma did. And hers were great on gramma’s pound cake.


Battle Strawberry Competitors

While I toyed with the idea of bringing a bowl of macerated strawberries to the Battle (I would have classed it up a bit with some Meyer lemon juice), I knew it wouldn’t win back the title of Reigning Iron Chef. Knowing that creativity was part of the scoring, I went for something out of the box completely and then went for another, more basic dish.


baked brie with strawberry preserves


This time we had a more intimate gathering, with 7 competitors and 14 dishes in the running. Just as before, each dish was awesome, and we had a balanced selection of savories vs sweets. My favorite this time was Lindsay’s baked brie w/ homemade strawberry preserves. mmmmmmm….. And my favorite for the theme was Terri’s strawberry soup. I tell ya, for a group of girls who (some) claimed intimidation in cooking with a chef-in-training, you’d never know it by the look and taste of everyones’ creations. I feel lucky to get to hang out with such a lovely group of girls, and the fact that they are all great cooks is just the icing on the cake!

mini strawberry shortcakes


Without further adieu, I’m proud to say I was able to win back my title as the Reigning Iron Chef, but Terri said the numbers were close! Everyone continues to bring their A-game, so the competition is definitely fierce! I already can’t wait for the next get-together – although having now been on both sides, I must say I enjoy the anticipation of finding out the theme ingredient more than doing the choosing. and so, the Countdown begins! (More photos)


strawberry mascarpone tart


The Top Three:
1st Place: Heather’s Strawberry Pizza w/ Goat Cheese, Watercress, & Pistachios
2nd Place: Heather’s Strawberry-Mascarpone Tart w/ Balsamic-Thyme Glaze
3rd Place: Rachel’s Mini Strawberry Shortcakes


strawberry pizza


The Winning Recipe:

Strawberry Pizza w/ Goat Cheese, Watercress, & Pistachios
adapted from Cooking Light magazine – measurements are definitely estimated, and although the original recipe called for store-bought pizza crust, I made my own and will include those instructions as well.


printable recipe

ingredients
One batch pizza dough (recipe below; can also used store-bought 12oz crust)
1/3 cup crumbled goat cheese
1 cup sliced strawberries
1 cup trimmed watercress
1/2 t EVOO
1 t lemon juice (I used Meyer, can use regular)
salt & pepper
1/4 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
3 T shelled, toasted pistachios, chopped


Basic pizza dough:
3/4 c warm water
1 envelope dry yeast
2 cups (or more) AP flour
1 t sugar
3/4 t salt
3 T olive oil


instructions
Basic pizza dough
Combine water & yeast; let sit for about 5 minutes.


By hand or w/ stand mixer (paddle attachment), combine flour, sugar, salt. Add yeast mixture and oil. Mix until sticky ball forms. Transfer to floured counter and knead until smooth (will probably add more flour as you go because the counter gets sticky and the dough is sticky; add by tablespoons). Total kneading time is 1-2 minutes. Put in large bowl that is oiled or sprayed and turn down over to cover with oil/spray. Cover w/ plastic and let rise in warm place (I preheat oven to lowest possible temp, like 100, and then open door to let heat out before putting in; best is about 80 degrees) for an hour, or until about doubled in size. Take dough out, back on floured surface and deflate dough. Roll out to desired shape.


pizza
Preheat oven to 425 F


Place crust on baking sheet or stone. Bake for ~8-12 minutes. Remove and sprinkle goat cheese on crust.


Mix strawberries through s&p in bowl and arrange over pizza. Top with nuts and shaved cheese. Top with additional fresh grated pepper if desired.


Notes: you can store dough after deflated in an airtight container to use later. You could even make extra and freeze it. Also, pizza dough is super glutenous and might be hard to work with at times. If so, let it sit and “rest” before rolling out.