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If you live in Texas or have ever visited Texas, chances are you’ve been to Chuy’s Mexican restaurant. If so, then you know of the crack that is their Jalapeno Ranch Dip.  I shamelessly devour the stuff, hoarding the too-tiny bowl near my plate lest someone swipe in a chip when I’m not looking, depriving me of one incredible bite. It may sound to some like I’m exaggerating. In fact, this is actually a bit of an understatement. The stuff is transcendent.

I had not, however, set out to replicate Chuy’s dip today. Attempting the impossible seemed a bit out of my league for a normal Tuesday afternoon. Instead, I was making a Cilantro Dressing I’d seen on Pinterest for dinner with a few friends tonight. As I looked over the recipe, I realized that it was basically Hidden Valley ranch mixed with a Guacamole Taquero (also a Pinterest find–thanks, Suzanne!). I had about half of this sauce left over from fish tacos this weekend (it was incredible, by the way) so I figured I’d just combine the rest of the sauce with the ranch dressing. Since the sauce just added a little more jalapeno and an avocado that the dressing recipe didn’t have, I figured how different can it be?

Wow.

Transcendence.

I had inadvertently recreated Chuy’s dip, or something so close that I can barely tell a difference. Since I’m not really sure how much of the guacamole taquero I used, I’m recording the full recipe below. You can mix as much as you like with the ranch. As for the leftovers, I highly recommend grilled tilapia, corn tortillas, red cabbage, and cilantro. With a side of pineapple. Not bad for a Sunday supper. But back to the dip.

For the guacamole taquero, place three washed tomatillos (about 0.5-0.75 lbs.) in a blender and chop until broken down. Then add 1/4 cup cilantro, a garlic clove, 1/4 cup chopped yellow onion (any will do), 1.5 -2 seeded jalapenos (unless you really like heat), the juice of 1 lime, 1 tsp. of kosher salt, and the flesh of 1 small Hass avocado. Blend until smooth. You’ll need about 1/2 to 2/3 of this sauce for the dip. The rest will keep in the fridge for a few days.

For the Jalapeno Ranch Dip, place 1 cup mayonnaise (I used Kraft olive oil mayo, since it’s lighter and calories matter when you eat this by the vat), 1 cup milk (1% is fine), 1 packet Hidden Valley Ranch dressing mix, and 1/2 to 2/3 of the guacamole taquero (to your taste). Blend until smooth, place in an airtight container, and refrigerate. It will do double duty as salad dressing and dip tonight, but you could really use it in so many ways.

Enjoy!

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Homemade Chex Mix has been a holiday tradition in my house for as long as I can remember. My mom gets out her old metal 13×9 pan–dented and seasoned from years of baking–melts the margarine, adds the seasonings, and tosses it with our choice of cereals: rice, wheat, and (my favorite) corn chex, Cheerios, and pretzel sticks. Nothing more. Absolutely no peanuts–this was a debate for years, but we’re finally all in peaceful agreement. Nuts are allowed in fudge only.

Oh, and her fudge is amazing.

But the Chex Mix. It’s taken me years to get it right, but this year, I got it. Yes, it’s the recipe on the cereal box, but when she makes it, it is so much more. So here it is: 6 tablespoons of salted butter, melted in the pan then mixed with 2 tablespoons (plus a few dashes) of Worcestershire sauce, 1 1/2+ teaspoons seasoned salt, 1 heaping
teaspoon garlic powder, and 3/4 heaping teaspoon of onion powder. Stir until blended, then add 10 cups of cereal, tossing well, a few handfuls of broken pretzel sticks, and bake at 300 F for an hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Don’t even think about using the microwave. It just wouldn’t be traditional.

Oh, and you need a Christmas canister to store it in. And if your kids are heading back to college, send the tin with them. You may think they don’t need a themed tins in their tiny dorm rooms, and you’d be right. But trust me: Every time they see that tin, even if it’s shoved to the back of a closet, they’ll pause for a moment and think of you. And they’ll smile.

I think I might prefer wine and pasta to chocolate. There, I said it. I love wine and pasta! I really love wine and pasta! (Where is Oprah’s couch when you need it?) And much like love, simple is so often better. Dan was in Baltimore last weekend, so I decided to treat myself to a huge bowl of pasta and a movie marathon. And though I often love long-simmering dishes, there’s also something so satisfying about being able to put together a glorious meal in no time at all. And to treat yourself to something you love, to revel in those few moments when you have nothing but possibility in front of you–that is my definition of a true feast. After all, why not celebrate yourself now and again? Pour some wine, never mind if the glass is a little too full to be considered “proper.” Slurp that pasta with devil-may-care abandon. Enjoy every bite, and go back for seconds. It’s your feast after all.

Quick Tapenade: (2-3 servings for main course pasta, 4-6 for pasta as a side)

In the bowl of a food processor, place an assortment of olives–I like to mix several types from the olive bar, probably a cup total. I prefer spicy green olives (sometimes called green olives with chilis) and kalamatas. Pit olives if necessary, and chop large olives in half. Add 1-2 tablespoons of capers, 1/2 lemon (zest and juice), 1-2 garlic cloves (smashed), and a handful of parsley–no need to chop. Add 1-2 T extra virgin olive oil, and pulse until chopped. Optional: Add several anchovies to the food processor. I love this taste, but it’s excellent without them.

Cook 8-12 oz. linguine according to package directions. Transfer the tapenade to a large bowl, and add cooked pasta to the tapenade. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water to loosen the tapenade into a sauce if necessary. Sprinkle with chopped parsley to serve.

This is also great as a spread on a  warm baguette as an appetizer–it will serve about 6 people. Or keep the whole bowl for yourself, add a glass of wine and a great movie, and call it dinner. I would make it a Sandra Bullock night–The Proposal, Two Weeks Notice, While You Were Sleeping, and Miss Congeniality. No matter your feelings about her (I happen to think she’s fabulous), you have to admit her supporting casts are stellar. I know it’s trendy to say so, but Betty White makes The Proposal.

I grew up in a small town in northern Ohio. And I loved it. Ohio is one state that really seemed to get the seasons right–hot summers perfect for running through the sprinklers, cool and beautiful falls with leaves of every color, snowy winters that required hot chocolate and bright sweaters, and springs that launched every backyard garden into high gear. But one of my favorite things about Ohio was, and still is, its signature chili. This is one of the first dishes I learned how to make, and to this day is one of the most comforting meals I know. Southerners can have their fried chicken–I’ll take this any day. What makes it distinct? Oddly, some of the same ingredients that make a Mexican mole sauce: chocolate and cinnamon. Just a hint of each, enough to add warmth and intrigue. It gives the chili a depth and spiciness that you just can’t find in any other recipe. And it’s served over spaghetti! Comfort food never had it so good. I have a perfect record on converts to this chili–it may take three bites or three bowls, but you will come back for more.

Cincinnati Chili

(adapted from Cooking Light, September 2008)

1. Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add 1 T vegetable oil and 1 1/2-2 lbs. lean ground beef (I prefer ground sirloin). Cook until browned, breaking up large pieces. Remember, you’re going for something close to the consistency of hot dog chili. Add 1 1/2 medium onions (finely chopped; save the other half and add it at serving, see below), 2 cloves minced garlic, and cook five more minutes or until the onion is tender and translucent.

2. In the meantime, prepare the seasonings. I like to combine all of the spices ahead of time–I’m less likely to forget one when I add them to the pot. (For those that give a range of amounts–2-3 T, for example–add the lower amount first and taste after it simmers for a few minutes–add more as you wish.) In a small bowl, combine 2-3 T brown sugar, 2-3 T chili powder, 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. allspice, 1/4 tsp. ground coriander (this adds a nice brightness, but does not make enough difference that you should run out and buy it if you don’t already own it), 1/4-1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper (unless you use spicy barbecue sauce, then omit the cayenne), 3/4 tsp. kosher salt, 1/2-1 tsp. black pepper (depending on your spice-level preference), and 2-3 T unsweetened cocoa powder (if you prefer, you can add 1 oz. chopped unsweetened chocolate instead).

3. When the onion in tender, add to the pot: 1 cup water, 3 T barbecue sauce (if you use spicy, omit the cayenne pepper), 3-4 tsp. white vinegar, 1 (10.75 oz.) can tomato puree, and the spice mixture. Mix well, bring to a boil, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes. Taste after 15 minutes or so and adjust spices. Note: If the chili tastes too acidic, add more sugar–brown or white (I usually add a couple of pinches of white). If it tastes flat, add a pinch of salt. If that doesn’t help, add–wait for it–ketchup. I know it sounds crazy, but the vinegar and concentrated tomato flavor adds just the right punch, and you know you have it in your fridge.

4. About 15 minutes before the chili is done, put on a large pot of water to boil. Salt the water and add 12-14 oz. of spaghetti. Cook according to package directions. Drain, but do not rinse. Also, warm 1 (15 oz.) can of kidney beans, rinsed and drained. Note: Everyone I know loves the beans, so I cheat and add them to the chili pot when I set the past to cook to heat them through, rather than serving them separately. This saves me the trouble of another dirty dish.

5. To serve: Add 2-3 oz. pasta to each bowl, and add 1 cup of chili. This is two-way. Present diners with the next few options: kidney beans (three-way), chopped onion (four-way), and grated cheddar cheese (five-way).

Serves 6.

I hope you enjoy this archived post. It certainly explains the last few weeks of dissertation-writing. I have several new posts on the way, but until then, I hope this will suffice.

Sometimes you just need chocolate. We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve had a bad day or a rotten week, maybe you’re stretched so thin that even a little indulgence seems like complete and unattainable luxury. Perhaps you’re in a terrible mood with no explanation. You realize, as Ishmael does in the opening pages of Moby-Dick, that something needs to change: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off…” Whenever he finds himself in such a state, Ishmael goes to sea. I, on the other hand, make brownies. It seems far less dangerous, though every bit as deliberate. And while it instantly gratifies, the effect lasts far longer than one might expect. The more hats I feel like knocking off, the more chocolate I add, until the sea of white chocolate chips somewhat resembles the eponymous white whale of College English fame. These brownies offer a perfect escape from the Ahabs of the world, and despite my numerous literary references, they are so simple and indulgent that you will not feel an ounce of guilt eating half the pan while curled up watching Glee. Remember: all will be well with the world again. As Ishmael said, “The drama’s done,” and for more comfort, “the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Take a moment for yourself. Have a brownie. This too shall pass.

The Ultimate Brownie

(adapted from One Smart Cookie by Julie Van Rosendaal)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2/3 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 large egg
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 tsp. instant coffee granules, dissolved in 1 1/2 tsp. water
1 tsp. vanilla (a little more never hurt)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
Mix-Ins:
I prefer a few handfuls of white chocolate chips, semi-sweet chocolate chips, and mini chocolate chips (I sprinkle the minis on top of the batter before baking). You could also add any kind of baking chip, toffee chips, nuts, etc. Have fun here–the more you need chocolate, the more kinds you can add. You can even press crushed cookies or candies into the top of the batter before baking.
1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray a 9×9 pan liberally with cooking spray. Set aside.
2. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate over medium-low heat, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and add the sugar and cocoa powder. Mix until well-blended–it will resemble wet sand.
3. In a large bowl, whisk egg, egg whites, coffee, and vanilla. Add the chocolate mixture and whisk until well-blended–this may take a minute and some upper-body strength:-)
4. In the empty saucepan (so you don’t have to dirty another bowl, though you can if you wish) mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add these to the chocolate mixture and stir until there are a few streaks of flour left. At this point, and in your mix-ins and fold until well-distributed.
5. Pour batter into prepared pan and smooth into the corners. Bake at 350 F for 25 minutes, or until the edges just begin to pull away from the sides. (It is better to underbake brownies–these in particular are supposed to be fudgy.)
6. Cool in pan on a wire rack. Cut into squares–16-25, depending on the size you want your brownies.
Basic Nutritional Information, pre-mix-ins (per serving for 16 servings):
In case you’re wondering: Calories: 151, Fat: 4.4 gram

I love shapeshifting meals. Meals that can be a substantial breakfast, a luxurious lunch, or a light dinner. Quiche, Frittata, Shrimp and Grits (okay, this one’s not so light)–these can make any meal depending on serving size and accompaniments. And since this one uses The Best Cheese Known to Mankind, well, it was an obvious choice. I know there are more complex cheeses for more refined palates, but if I’m really going to be honest with myself, smoked gouda takes the cake every time. Seriously, there’s a picture of me at my wedding pointing at the smoked gouda on the cheese tray and smiling hysterically. Granted, this probably had something to do with the fact that I realized at that point I could eat the whole tray and it wouldn’t hit my hips until after I’d worn the wedding dress, but the smoked gouda was certainly the initial inspiration for the giddy grin. It reminds me of growing up in Ohio, when my parents would take me to the corner butcher shop on Saturday mornings–Richter’s, I think it was called–and the whole place smelled of the same savory smokiness I associate with gouda. How I loved that smell, and still do. All that to say, this quiche and I had this date from the beginning.

This recipe was simple to put together, as long as you let the store give you a hand. Just buy a crust and some pre-washed spinach and you’ll be ready to eat in an hour. I baked this in my convection toaster oven and it baked in almost half the time the recipe claimed, especially the blind baking step–it only took 15 minutes, and probably could have gone for less. If you have a large enough toaster oven, I highly recommend this method. Granted, I used the regular oven for the side of zucchini (see below) so it didn’t keep the kitchen from getting hot, but the speedy baking was still worth it. Also, the recipe in the magazine claims it makes 10 servings. If you’re serving it for brunch alongside several other offerings, sure, 10 servings might be accurate. But as a dinner entree with a simple side, go for 6-8 servings. The calorie count is still quite low, and there’s nothing worse than feeling unsatisfied after a good meal.

So without further ado…

Smoked Gouda Quiche

(adapted from Cooking Light, August 2010)

For the crust:

Buy a premade crust. I understand, you’re feeling righteous. You want to put only whole foods in your body, and no preservatives. You want to use real ingredients and feel the butter and flour come together under your gentle touch. Got it. If this is the case, here is my suggestion: Buy it. Seriously. Not only is the crust recipe suggested by Cooking Light the worst pie crust I’ve ever made (and I’ve made a lot)–it ripped and shredded and fought me every step of the way and made me want to scrap the whole endeavor and go out for pizza–although the final product did taste good. But you have to make the dough, chill it, roll it out and shape it to the pie pan, then freeze it, blind bake it, cool it, then finally fill it and bake the actual quiche. At least 3 hours total. It’s a good thing Dan was late getting home from his squash game or we would have waited for hours. And while I don’t mind a long process, this is not what you want to be doing for a “quick” evening meal. You can certainly make the crust the day ahead, but really, I have better things to do. So just buy it.

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Pierce a storebought 9-inch frozen pie crust with a fork to keep air bubbles from forming and bake for 25 minutes (check after 10-15 if using convection) or until lightly browned. Set aside to cool.

2. To prepare the filling: Heat 1 T extra-virgin olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/2 cup sliced green onions (green and white parts); saute 5 minutes or until tender.  (Add a pinch of salt to draw out moisture.) Add 3 cups fresh baby spinach (basically three large handfuls); saute 2 minutes. In a bowl, combine 1 cup low-fat milk with 3/4 cup grated smoked gouda, 3/4 tsp. salt, a pinch of grated nutmeg (freshly grated is always best), and 3 large eggs. Mix well with a whisk. Stir in the spinach mixture until well-incorporated. Pour filling into the crust.

3. Bake at 350 F for 35 minutes. If using convection, check after 20-25–the middle should not be wobbly and the top should be firm to the touch. Let cool for a few minutes before serving.

Serving Suggestion (and another recipe): Dan and I ate this for dinner with a side of Roasted Zucchini. Here’s how you make it: Preheat the oven to 450 F. Line a baking sheet with foil and spray with cooking spray. Mix 1-2 cloves minced garlic with 1-2 T extra virgin olive oil. Cut several zucchini into wedges (cut off both ends, halve, then slice each half lengthwise several times) and place these wedges skin side down of the baking sheet. Brush with the olive oil mixture, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and herbes de provence (or any other dried herb mixture you prefer). Bake for about 8-10 minutes; remove when the zucchini begins to brown on top.

There’s a coffee drink at Bottletree Bakery in Oxford, Mississippi, called the Bowl of Soul. No offense to Bottletree–I miss your Blueberry Brioche desperately–but I’m pretty sure spaghetti smothered in rich bolognese is the real bowl of soul. It lifts my spirits and brings me back down to earth at the same time. And while this sauce doesn’t give me the luxury of the aroma of tomato sauce slowly simmering on the stove all day, this sauce doesn’t have to slowly simmer on the stove all day. Yet it tastes like it did, and you can practically hear generations of Italian family members applauding your every bite. And I thought chocolate was the only food that could make you feel like you’re being wrapped in a slow embrace. Hence bowl of soul. Enjoy.

Simply Elegant Bolognese

(adapted from Everyday Italian)

1. As I prefer to prep everything rather than chop as I go–it’s much more leisurely, especially when combined with a glass of wine–chop 1 medium onion, 2 garlic cloves (place these in one bowl or pile) and 1 large carrot, and 1 celery stalk (set these aside).

2. Heat a large (emphasis on large) skillet over medium-high heat. Add 2-4 tablespoonfuls of olive oil. (Don’t skimp to save on calories–you’ll need the oil to keep the vegetables from burning. If you’re worried about fat, use a leaner ground beef or even ground turkey.) Add the onion and garlic and a pinch of salt; saute until the onion is quite tender, around 8-10 minutes. Add the carrot and celery. Saute another 5 minutes or until softened. Increase the heat to high and add 1 lb. of lean ground beef; break up and saute until browned, about 8 minutes.

3. Stir in 1 jar (about 24 oz.) of tomato basil marinara sauce, 1 (14-oz.) can diced tomatoes, and a heavy pinch of dried basil, oregano, thyme, and crushed red pepper flakes, as well as salt and pepper. Simmer 30 minutes or so over medium-low heat until thickened. (Quick trick: To get all of the sauce out of the jar, pour in everything you easily can, then add a splash of water to the jar, screw on the lid, shake, and pour into the pan. It will thicken up and you won’t feel wasteful It always makes me feel better.) After 30 minutes, season with salt and pepper to taste. If it tastes too acidic (bright, perhaps harsh on your tongue) add a pinch of sugar.

4. Meanwhile, cook 1 lb. of spaghetti in salted water according to package directions. Pile pasta into a bowl, smother with sauce, add grated parmesan (or parmeggiano-reggiano, even pecorino if you’re feeling fancy) and enjoy! Oh, and pour yourself a second glass of wine–you deserve it.

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