Monday, August 31, 2009

Grown-Up Grilled Cheese: Sweet and Spicy Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

I had a different recipe ready to post tonight, but I am so excited about what I made for dinner that it moved up straight to front of the queue! Grilled cheese is such a versatile sandwich, and one that brings me back to my childhood. There are so many variations that you can make with a grilled cheese. My sister adds ham to make herself a "Gooey Ham & Cheese". You can try any variety of cheeses (my standard is made of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Gruyere). A very long time ago, I dined at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater when I was visiting Disney World for a high school cheerleading competition. I ordered a grilled cheese and requested a pickle on the side. My sandwich was instead delivered to our table with the pickle in the grilled cheese and it turned out to be an excellent combination!

I recently found a recipe in Ellie Krieger’s The Food You Crave for a different version of the grilled cheese. While I’ve added tomatoes to a grilled cheese before myself, it is her addition of the caramelized onions that makes this sandwich so special, and more of a grown-up version. (Although I think my 2-year-old nephew would love it just as much as we did!)

After a very long day at work today, I arrived home late and was still able to whip this up in no time. I used High Five Fiber bread from Great Harvest Bread Co., fresh tomatoes from the farmers’ market, and used my grill pan with a sandwich press. You could also use a Panini maker if you have one, and I’ll admit that I have been known to make a grilled cheese by assembling the sandwiches and just letting them bake on a sheet pan in the oven (not a preferable method, but a bit more convenient when you don’t have a few minutes to stand in front of the stove flipping sandwiches). I served the sandwiches with the Roasted Tomato and Cognac soup I made over the weekend, and this meal hit the spot!

Sweet and Spicy Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

* 2 teaspoons canola oil
* 1 large red onion, finely diced (or sliced)
* Salt
* Freshly ground black pepper
* 3 ounces sharp Cheddar, thinly sliced, divided
* 8 slices whole-wheat bread
* 3 ounces pepper Jack cheese, thinly sliced, divided
* 1 large or 2 medium beefsteak or hothouse tomatoes, sliced
* Cooking spray

Heat oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Lower heat to medium. Add onions and saute, stirring, until edges are browned, about 10 to 12 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.

Place 3/4-ounce Cheddar on 1 slice bread. Spread 1 tablespoon caramelized onions on top of cheese and top with 3/4-ounce pepper Jack. Top with 1 large or 2 medium slices tomato and other slice of bread. Repeat with 3 other sandwiches.

Spray a nonstick skillet or griddle with cooking spray and heat until hot. Place sandwich on griddle and weigh down with a heavy skillet or plate. Lower heat to medium-low and grill until underside is a deep brown but not burnt and cheese is partially melted, about 5 to 6 minutes. Flip sandwich and grill other side, an additional 4 to 5 minutes. Slice in half and serve hot.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Still Summer - Fish Tacos with Chipotle Cream

I’ve hardly been “live” for a week, I’ve only told about 3 people that this little blog exists, and I’ve already received my first request! My husband’s friend and colleague (we’ll call him “Triple T”), has requested that I make and post a dish that is near and dear to his heart and home (and one that I have yet to conquer). I am up for the challenge, Triple T, and your request is in the queue! While this is no Chuy's fish taco, I hope that it will tide you over...

The weather where I live has been unseasonably cool as of late. The air is brisk, the sky is grey, and the breeze is crisp. If the calendar didn’t say August, one might think it was October. I had to hold myself back from delving into my fall favorites (think root vegetables), and embrace the fact that it is still summer and I must capitalize on the opportunity to make the rounds through my summer recipe rotation while I still can. So instead of peeling and seeding a butternut squash, we fired up the outdoor grill and blended some margaritas.

My husband and I are both fans of fish tacos. They offer a lighter way to enjoy Mexican food than some other traditional dishes that consist of heavy sauces and lots of cheese. I have tried several different fish taco recipes without much satisfaction. We tried Ellie Krieger’s a few weeks ago, and it was a home run. The spiciness of the chipotle is balanced by the sweetness of the corn. The lime and olive oil are a simple, yet tasty marinade for the fish. We grilled mahi-mahi, and I used non-fat Greek yogurt (a new obsession of mine) for the chipotle sauce (with extra chipotle because I love spicy food). We also used flour tortillas instead of corn tortillas, as I typically have them on hand.

The different components of the recipe come together pretty quickly, but it does take a bit of time to assemble all of the tacos. If you’re serving to a crowd, you could make this an activity where everyone can assemble their own. Otherwise put out some chips and salsa to keep them happy and occupied!

Fish Tacos with Chipotle Cream
* 2 tablespoons olive oil
* 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* Freshly ground black pepper
* 1 pound white flaky fish fillet, like tilapia, mahi-mahi, or halibut

Chipotle cream:
* 1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt or 1/3 cup Greek-style nonfat yogurt
* 2 tablespoons mayonnaise
* 2 teaspoons chipotle pepper, in adobo sauce

* 8 (6-inch) corn tortillas
* 1 1/2 cups shredded green cabbage or lettuce
* 1/2 cup corn kernels (thawed if frozen)
* 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves
* Lime wedges

In a small bowl, whisk together the oil, lime juice, salt and pepper. Pour over the fish fillets and let marinate for 20 minutes. Put the yogurt into a strainer lined with apaper towel and place over a bowl to drain and thicken for 20 minutes.

Remove the fish from the marinade and grill on a preheated grill or nonstick grill pan over a medium-high heat until cooked thorough, about 3 minutes per side. Set the fish aside on a plate for 5 minutes.

In a small bowl combine the thickened yogurt, mayonnaise, and chipotle pepper.

Heat the tortillas on the grill or grill pan for 30 seconds on each side.

Flake the fish with a fork. Top each tortilla with 1 tablespoon of the chipotle cream. Top with fish, cabbage, corn and cilantro and serve with lime wedges.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Seconds, please!

My husband and I visited Napa for the first time last year. You frequently hear about “wine country”. You read the labels on your wine bottles and see if your wine is from Sonoma, Napa, or elsewhere. You really have no idea what it looks or feels like until you visited. Our first trip Northern California wine country found us staying in Sonoma and driving around to several vineyards in Napa County. The weather was perfect – the temperature was around 80°F and the clear blue sky was framed the bright sun. As we cruised along the St. Helena Highway in our rented convertible, the top was down and the breeze was blowing our hair. We were slightly buzzed from the wine and the sound of a catchy Jason Mraz tune filled the air. We looked at each other smiling and said, “This is the life! Does it get any better than this?" We decided we must return to make an informed decision on that question.

So we headed back to the area just under a year later for a second trip to Napa. Rented convertible? Check. 80°F and sunny? Check. Wine tastings a plenty? Check plus! For this visit we had scheduled to take a wine tasting class (officially titled “ A Guided Tasting”) at Robert Mondavi. The Mondavi grounds are absolutely beautiful. The Guided Tasting class is at 10:00 am (they start your day off right!) and can hold up to 15 people per class. Much to our delightful surprise, we had a private class! Our instructor/sommelier, Doug, had a wealth of knowledge. We worked our way through several wines, learning the proper technique to taste. The intimate size of our “class” allowed us to ask questions and engage in conversation about the wine, and also learn about the Mondavi estate. For anyone traveling to wine country, this class is a MUST DO! You’ll be surprised with how much you’ll learn, and the winery and vineyards are stunning. We walked away with a bottle of Unoaked Chardonnay that we purchased (and now can't find anywhere around here to buy more of!), and a desire to call our new friend Doug for a consult every time we’d buy a bottle of wine the in future!

We then spent the rest of the day going from vineyard to vineyard, but I’ll fast-forward to dinner. After a day full of wine tasting your appetite does not desire much. However, when in Napa, there are too many quality restaurants to settle for anything less than a gourmet dinner. Napa Valley includes some marquis restaurants in the Foodie world, like French Laundry and Bouchon.

As we didn’t want to take out a second mortgage to pay for dinner, we found a reasonably priced restaurant with rave reviews in downtown Napa. Celadon is located by the Napa River. They have a large outdoor patio, as well as indoor dining. At the time of our visit, the patio was covered and heated, and we were seated next to their charming outdoor fireplace. Our server greeted us with a surprising toss of confetti (how celebratory!), and we put in our order for yes, more wine!

We started with the macadamia nut crusted goat cheese with port poached figs, apples and crostini, and a cup of the mushroom bisque.

We decided that it was the best mushroom bisque we have ever had. We finished the whole thing and ordered another. Yes, we had not yet received our entrees, weren’t even that hungry, and ordered a SECOND mushroom bisque. It was that good. (And I am still in disbelief that we ordered two.)

I had the grilled polenta napoleon with garden vegetables, fresh mozzarella and balsamic glaze. The taste of these chargrilled vegetables were able to stand up to the exquisite presentation of the dish.

My husband had the grilled c.a.b. filet mignon, braised yukon golds, sautéed mustard greens, cabernet sauce, which he thoroughly enjoyed.

I suppose one must concede that you're going to be overly full in Napa. (Even without the second order of mushroom bisque.) Don’t skimp on wine (that’s why you’re there, right?). Don’t skimp on the food either. It is a Foodie heaven. During our session at Mondavi, we asked Greg what time of year he reccommeded for a return visit to Napa. He said the best time for a Napa excursion is for the "crush" which occurs around October when the grapes are harvested. Greg said that you can drive around Napa and the smell of grapes fills the air. I foresee us needing to take a third trip to Napa to confirm his word. We'll likely be needing a convertible for that trip too!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Staple Hors d'Oeuvre: Kate’s Tomato Bruschetta

I think that we all have our “staple” dishes. The one that we’re called upon to bring whenever there is a family dinner, birthday party, or other kind of gathering. This staple makes us feel good, because it means that others enjoy our dish again and again. (Or, it alternatively could mean that no one else wants to make a particular dish that is necessary for a gathering, and we get stuck with it – Thanksgiving anyone?)

My staple genre happens to be hors d'oeuvres. And I love it. If my dinner every night merely consisted of hors d'oeuvres, I’d be a very happy woman. I love that you can try little bites of so many different foods, and go back for seconds on the ones you like. When my sister sent out the food sign-up for my nephew’s last birthday party, I asked if I could bring all of the hors d'oeuvres. After ensuring that no one else would contribute to the pre-dinner snacks, I went all out and put out quite the spread!

My go-to hors d'oeuvre happens to be one that is rather seasonal, and best enjoyed in the late-summer, early fall months. (If you’ve read my previous posts, you’ve by now garnered that it must include tomatoes!) I won’t disappoint, it does, and it is my version of bruschetta. There are so many different versions of this bite-sized treat. My take on bruschetta is the simple, yet delicious ingredients of a Insalata Caprese on top of a crostini. While I’ll admit to making this recipe year-round, the fresh ingredients are the star, and it tastes best when you’re using fresh baked bread, basil picked from the garden, tomatoes from the farmers’ market, and fresh mozzarella made that morning. I prefer to purchase my baguette and mozzarella from Zingerman’s, although your local grocery store should stock fresh mozzarella (check the deli section), along with a fresh baguette. Roma tomatoes are the perfect size to slice and place on top of your baguette rounds, but if I’m at the market, I’ll buy whatever kind of tomato looks the ripest and then cut the slices accordingly.

This is a huge crowd pleaser. I’ll put these out at a party, before a meal, and on an occasional summer night (like tonight!) I’ll make a platter and my husband and I will call it dinner. If you happen to have any leftovers – albeit highly unlikely – pop them in a 350°F oven for about 8 minutes. The cheese will melt and the bread will regain it’s crusty texture. It is a completely different snack that is equally delicious!

Kate’s Tomato Bruschetta
* 1 fresh French baguette, sliced into small ½ inch rounds
* 4-5 Roma tomatoes, thinly sliced (amount depends on the size of your tomatoes)
* ¼ cup fresh Basil leaves, thinly sliced
* 8 oz. fresh Mozzarella, drained, patted dry, and thinly sliced
* Extra Virgin Olive Oil, for drizzling
* Sea Salt, to taste

Preheat oven to 350°F. Place sliced baguette on large baking sheet and drizzle with Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Bake for approximately 10 minutes, until bread is golden and firm, but not burnt. Allow bread to cool for several minutes. Top bread with one slice of tomato, each. Sprinkle with sea salt. Top bread with one slice of mozzarella each, and sprinkle with basil. Drizzle with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and serve.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Finding Our Element

My husband and I have been fortunate enough to be doing a respectable amount of traveling lately. This is a perk of being DINK’s (Dual Income, No Kids). The past six months or so have been a bit of a whirlwind, as our suitcases were only unpacked and put away for the first time a few weeks ago (only to be in their resting place until next weekend). Earlier this summer we had an amazing trip to the west coast, with most of our time spent in Northern California. While we had many delicious meals I plan on sharing with you, one that stands out in my mind is a special dinner in Santa Barbara.

We left Napa, California around 8:30 am and drove down Highway 1 (in a convertible, of course!). It was a 400 mile drive with breathtaking views, sharp turns, and steep inclines and declines. There are also very few restaurants along this drive, and time kept passing without us finding a place to stop for lunch. We drove through Cambria, California, around 3:30 pm, and finally saw a few restaurants to choose from. We grabbed some margaritas and quesadillas at a little Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and got back on our route. We finally arrived at our destination in Santa Barbara in the late evening. Prior to our trip, I had researched several restaurants in Santa Barbara, but as the sun was setting over the Pacific and our hotel was a few blocks from the center of town, we decided to forego the plans and take a stroll through town to see what we could find. (I think we were also looking for a pharmacy for an urgent purchase of aloe to comfort a bad sunburn I had.) We walked by so many hip restaurants of varying cuisines. We seriously could have walked into any one of them and been satisfied.

I told my husband I really wanted to see the Santa Barbara courthouse, as many acquaintances had declared it a must-see site while in Santa Barbara. We really had no idea where it was, but my husband’s trusty Blackberry GPS found us only two blocks away. As we got closer we saw the courthouse all lit up, looking majestic and lively with swarms of people around. We walked up to front to find out that there was an art and wine fundraiser going on. For $30 you gained entrance to the fundraiser, along with unlimited tastes of wine and food from local vendors. It looked like a lot of fun, and sounded like a great deal. Being that we were still stuffed from our late afternoon lunch of quesadillas, we passed and walked around the block to get a better view of the festivities. Low and behold, we stumbled upon Elements. The name of the restaurant had stuck out in my mind, because it was one that Giada visited on her Santa Barbara episode of Giada’s Weekend Getaways. We grabbed a table on the outdoor patio and decided to split a few dishes to sample their food. (This is an uncommon and rather difficult prospect as my husband and I eat completely different things. But he had already been eating his fair share of steaks on our vacation and agreed to order things that I could eat.)

As we sat at Elements, I couldn’t think of anything that could have made this meal more romantic. The courthouse was all lit up in the dark night sky. We could clearly hear the band playing across the street at the fundraiser (with some favorite tunes by the Beatles, Chicago, Tom Petty, etc.) We were sitting underneath a palm tree that was a lit up, and the candle on our table flickered with the cool night ocean breeze. Then we were served our food. I had what was probably my all-time favorite martini, their "Elementini" which was a blueberry martini. The delicious cocktail had muddled fresh blueberries and was rimmed with a lemon zest sugar. I had two, and would have ordered a third, but our meal had ended by then. I actually called the restaurant when we returned home the following week and asked how they made it. We started with their Fire Roasted Tomato Soup with sweet basil bruschetta, chive oil and a grilled cheese finger sandwich. That also came out with our order of the Exotic Mushroom Toban Yaki with shemiji, maiatke, shiitake, white and brown beach mushrooms sautéed with sake, yuzu and soy. We split the Black Sesame Encrusted Seared Ahi Tuna Steak entrée which was served with passionfruit-soy butter sauce, wasabi whipped potatoes and braised asian greens. The fact that these were all dishes similar to ones we had before (tomato soup, sautéed mushrooms, seared tuna), but all had such extremely different tastes and flavor than we had before, made it such an interesting and delicious meal. The presentation was beautiful. The flavors lingered on your tongue. And the candle continued to flicker in the Santa Barbara breeze while the band played on.

The meal was truly magical, and I would return to Santa Barbara in a heartbeat, just to dine at Elements. As I told my husband as we sat there that evening, this is a meal I'll never forget!

Blueberry Lemon Drop
Fresh muddled blueberries
Stoli Blueberi vodka
Triple Sec
Fresh lemon juice
Splash of sprite
Served with a citrus sugar rim

Monday, August 24, 2009

In Season - Roasted Corn, Pepper, and Tomato Chowder

There are few foods I love more than farm fresh tomatoes in August or September. They are so juicy with an intense flavor. Their color is a deep beautiful red, and they slice with ease. I am perfectly content bringing a bag home from the market, slicing them, and eating them with a little olive oil and sea salt, and nothing more! Despite my pleasure in this simple late-summer treasure, I am also willing to try almost any recipe that includes tomatoes.

My mother recently referred me to a Cooking Light recipe for Roasted Corn, Pepper, and Tomato Chowder. It capitalizes on the season's fresh ingredients, and includes two of my favorites (the other is corn). This recipe is so good that I made it one night, it was gone in two days, and I found myself making another batch that night! And again three nights later! My current dilemma is that all of the fresh tomatoes I have been buying have been going into this soup when I need to be trying some other recipes!

I really have no alterations to this recipe, other than the fact that I roasted the vegetables instead of grilling them (my “grill man” wasn’t home at the time, and it ended up working out great). The recipe recommends serving with bleu cheese and chives as a garnish. I’ve also tried goat cheese, croutons, and it is perfect accompanied by a grilled cheese and light green salad.

Roasted Corn, Pepper, and Tomato Chowder
* 3 red bell peppers, halved and seeded
* 3 ears shucked corn
* 1 1/2 pounds tomatoes, halved, seeded, and peeled (about 4)
* 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
* 4 cups chopped onion (about 2 medium)
* 3 (14-ounce) cans fat-free, less-sodium vegetable broth
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
* 1/4 cup (1 ounce) crumbled blue cheese
* 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1. Prepare grill to medium-high heat.
2. Arrange bell peppers, skin side down, and corn in a single layer on a grill rack; grill 5 minutes, turning corn occasionally. Add tomatoes; grill an additional 5 minutes or until vegetables are slightly charred. Remove from heat; cool 10 minutes. Coarsely chop tomatoes and bell peppers; place in a medium bowl. Cut kernels from ears of corn; add to tomato mixture.
3. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion; cook 7 minutes or until tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in tomato mixture; cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Increase heat to high, and stir in broth. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 30 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Cool 20 minutes.
4. Place one-third of tomato mixture in a blender; process until smooth. Place pureed mixture in a large bowl. Repeat procedure twice with remaining tomato mixture. Wipe pan clean with paper towels. Press tomato mixture through a sieve into pan; discard solids. Place pan over medium heat; cook until thoroughly heated. Stir in salt and black pepper. Ladle about 1 1/2 cups soup into each of 6 bowls; top each serving with 2 teaspoons cheese and 1 teaspoon chives.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Easy Brunch Scramble: Kate's Scrumptious Scramble

My husband and I are not “breakfast people”. On any given day, he has coffee (black) and a banana, and I have a sugar-free Red Bull and some granola. This is about as much as we can take in the morning. (I think our logic on foregoing breakfast is that we sleep in until the last second possible, and therefore leave no time for breakfast.)

We do, however, enjoy breakfast food. We really got into this while living in NYC and partaking in weekend brunch. What a wonderful activity brunch is in the city! It combines both breakfast and lunch items on one menu (genius!) so there is something for everyone. You want an omelet? No problem! A sandwich and fries? Easy! Unlimited mimosas? Always! (Yes, that last item is why we really went to brunch all of the time.) Brunch in NYC lasts from around 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, so you can go anytime of the day (= sleeping in and still enjoying breakfast food!) Our favorite brunch place, for anyone who is in the area, is Arte Café on West 73rd near Columbus. They have a terrific brunch, a romantic patio, and of course, unlimited drinks! And Arte Café is two blocks from our church, so we can go to mass, and then pass the day away with Bellini’s and the delicious muffins the waiters bring around in the large wicker baskets.

While I’ve done my own take on a NYC Brunch before, as of late, brunch in our house has been a bit lighter, quicker, and more sober. A recipe I tried several weeks ago and have been repeating since is Ellie Krieger’s Scrumptious Scramble. It has been particularly delicious with the fresh tomatoes I’ve been purchasing from my local farmers’ market and the fresh chives I've been using from my "garden". You can follow the link above for Ellie’s recipe, but here is a version with my modifications:

Kate's Scrumptious Scramble
* Cooking spray
* 1/4 cup green onion, chopped
* 1 fresh tomato, diced
* 1 cup of Eggbeaters (or other egg substitute)
* 2 egg whites
* 2 tablespoons water, optional
* 1 tablespoon fresh dill, finely chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried dill
* 2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
* Salt and pepper

In a medium sized, non-stick skillet, heat pan over medium heat and spray with cooking spray. In a medium bowl lightly beat together the Eggbeaters, egg whites and water, if using. Season with salt and pepper. Pour the egg mixture into the skillet and cook over a medium-low flame, stirring frequently, until the eggs are almost set. Add tomatoes, green onions and dill and gently mix into eggs. Garnish with chives.

I’ve served this with sliced avocado, a light green salad, fresh fruit, yogurt, and on this particular day, Zingerman’s 8-grain 3-seed bread and Arkansas Peppered Bacon.