February 26, 2015

Southwest Chicken Chili

It's been snowing for the last few hours up here in Madison, and judging by all the stuff on Instagram and Snapchat from my friends back home, even the south is getting hit with some winter weather, though hopefully it's no snowpocalypse. Basically, everyone could use some piping hot comfort food (especially on National Chili Day!), particularly when it's secretly healthy and surprisingly easy to make. It may look like this chili has a laundry list of ingredients (which it kind of does), but it essentially consists of three main categories: chicken, vegetables, and spices.

I'll start with the spices since you honestly can't have chili without them. Here, I use copious amounts of garlic powder and onion powder (the staples) plus paprika, chili powder, and cayenne. You can adjust those based on your heat tolerance, but remember that you're also adding jalapenos (and other hot peppers if you so desire), so don't go overboard. It's much easier to stir some more in close to the end if it's not spicy enough than to try to mute over-seasoning. I also add some cumin because it's one of the key flavors of southwestern cooking.

Ok, I'm going a little out of order here, but I'm going to talk about the chicken. For ease of buying, cooking, and shredding, I just use boneless, skinless chicken breasts. The skin would just get soggy while it simmers in the crockpot all day/night, and there's enough flavor from the other ingredients and tenderness from the long cooking time that bone-in just isn't necessary. If you have another cut or something is on sale, go with that, but I generally stick with the boneless, skinless breasts. Regardless of the cut you choose, it's still really important to sear it until it's golden brown. Otherwise you're going to end up with poached chicken (without that lovely flavor that comes from browning meat), and you won't have anything to cook the vegetables in.

Does it make sense why I went out of order now? I hate wasting the fat from cooking meat, whether it's bacon fat or, in this case, chicken fat. Cooking the onions, peppers, jalapenos, and garlic in the chicken fat sops it all up and enhances their flavors. I don't add the beans, corn, tomatoes, or green chiles since they are more watery and won't benefit from browning in the skillet anyway.

Once the chicken and the onion/pepper mixture are cooked off, it's time to load everything into your slow cooker. If you don't have one, I highly recommend getting one since they are pretty cheap and you can make delicious things like sausage, bean, and kale stew and, well, southwest chicken chili. I stir the cooked vegetables, beans, corn, tomatoes, and green chiles together, add the spices and nestle the chicken into the mixture. I use a combination of fresh and canned tomatoes for the convenience and the moisture, and the corn can be fresh, canned, or frozen depending on the season. The whole thing is cooked on low for 5 or 6 hours before the chicken is tender enough to be shredded. Shredding the chicken is really simple; I use my hands or two forks to pull it into bite-sized pieces. They go back into the slow cooker for another 30 minutes or so to soak up more flavor, and then it's ready to eat!

2 lbs Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast
1 Yellow Onion, Diced
1 Bell Pepper, Diced
1 Jalapeño, Minced
5 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 16 oz Can Black Beans, Drained and Rinsed
1 16 oz Can Kidney Beans, Drained and Rinsed
2 Ears Corn
1 28 oz Can Diced Tomatoes
1 4 oz Can Diced Green Chiles
1 14.5 oz Can Crushed Tomatoes
2 tsp Garlic Powder
2 tsp Onion Powder
2 tsp Paprika
2 tsp Chili Powder
1 tsp Cayenne
1 tsp Cumin

Heat some oil in a large pot. Sear the chicken until deep golden brown, about 5 minutes per side, seasoning with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Saute the onion, bell pepper, jalapeño, and garlic in the chicken drippings until tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Combine the black beans, kidney beans, corn kernels, diced tomatoes, green chiles, crushed tomatoes, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, chili powder, cayenne, and salt and pepper in a crock pot. Stir in the onion and bell pepper mixture, then add the chicken and cover with the vegetables. Cook on low for 5-6 hours, shred the chicken, stir the chicken in, and cook for another 30-60 minutes.

Serves 8
Recipe Adapted from Oh So Decadent

February 16, 2015

Cajun Shrimp Skillet

Mardi Gras was never really a big thing in Atlanta, but I didn't realize some people still celebrated it until I moved up north and nobody has said anything. Seriously, nothing. Who wouldn't want an excuse to eat beignet and king cake and lots of other Cajun and Creole delicacies? Well, I suppose if you smother everything in cheese and make something called a tater tot casserole it's not as big of a deal. But still. What these Wisconsinites need is some down-home Cajun cooking, and I have just the recipe.

This dish is surprisingly simple given that it has so many complex flavors. It's essentially shrimp served over a bed of rice and vegetables, but the trick is to build up multiple layers of flavor. That begins by blooming the spices in some oil, which sounds like a lot of extra work but really only takes a few minutes. By letting the spices cook in some hot oil for a few minutes, they become so much more fragrant and potent. Since they are the base of the dish and pretty much everything else is cooked with them, this is pretty important.

The next layer is the Cajun version of a mirepoix. A mirepoix is a traditional French base for a variety of dishes and consists of onions, celery and carrots. In Louisiana, however, bell peppers are substituted for the carrots to create what is commonly known as the Holy Trinity. This all cooks with the shrimp for a few minutes until the onions are almost tender, then the garlic and jalapenos are stirred in. The jalapeno adds a bit of heat and, well, everything could use a little garlic.

The vegetables don't stop there, though. I also add fresh tomatoes and scallions for a bit of tartness and more oniony flavor. The colors are also beautiful, which is always a big plus. Finally, I stir in some cooked rice. It can be any type so long as it's plain but well-salted. Brown rice is fine if you're looking to be a little healthier (although this dish is already quite good for you), but so is long-grain, jasmine, or even leftover takeout rice. By the time it's warmed through, the shrimp should be opaque and the veggies should be cooked, so the dish is ready to eat! Your protein, carbs, and veggies are all in one dish, making dinner a breeze and leaving more time for other Mardi Gras festivities.

1 lb Medium Shrimp, Peeled & Deveined
2 Ribs Celery, Diced
1 Yellow Onion, Diced
1 Bell Pepper, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Jalapeno, Minced
2 tsp Cajun Seasoning
1 tsp Chili Powder
½ tsp Cayenne
½ tsp Garlic Powder
½ tsp Onion Powder
½ tsp Paprika
4 Plum Tomatoes, Diced
4 Scallions, Sliced
3 Cups Cooked Rice

Heat some oil in a large skillet. Add the Cajun seasoning, chili powder, cayenne, garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika. Stir in the shrimp, celery, onions, and bell peppers and season with salt and pepper; cook for 4 minutes or until the onions are tender. Stir in the jalapeno and garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and scallions and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the rice and cook until heated through and the shrimp are opaque.

Serves 4-6
Recipe Adapted from Food Network

February 10, 2015

Pasta All'Amatriciana

My sister and dad insisted that I publish something Lady and the Tramp-esque for Valentine's Day since the idea of slurping spaghetti with your significant other and meeting in the middle is the epitome of romance. Personally, I'd rather sit in a bathtub of this stuff and just shovel it into my mouth continuously, but you do you. Really, this pasta is just that good. I adapted it from my grandma's recipe for her "mother sauce," or Pasta All'Amatriciana as most people would call it.

The sauce is a variation of a classic red sauce/marinara/Sunday gravy, but it's infinitely better because it's full of bacon. Well, pancetta, which is the Italian version of bacon. Both pancetta and bacon are cured, but only bacon is smoked. Pancetta is often much more expensive, however, so if you're going to splurge on one thing, I'd actually recommend getting the right tomatoes (but I'll get to that later). I've made this with regular bacon and it tastes absolutely delicious, though I'd recommend adding just under what the recipe calls for since it has a stronger flavor.

I cook the pancetta/bacon in a big pot until it's crispy and a lot of the fat renders off. It may look like there's a lot of fat, but that's the best-case scenario because I cook the garlic and onions in it. If you like a chunkier sauce, dice or chop the onions to whatever size you would enjoy eating. I prefer a smooth sauce, so I just slice them because I puree the sauce later. Regardless of the cut, the onions and garlic are cooked until they are tender and fragrant in that flavorful pork fat. You have to cook them in some sort of fat, so you may as well use something that will impart extra flavor.

It's now time to add the tomatoes--probably the most important part of the whole dish. If you can, I highly recommend splurging on San Marzano tomatoes. You really can taste the difference; they are sweeter, less acidic, and contain fewer seeds than your typical canned tomatoes. You can only buy San Marzanos whole or crushed, though. Like I said, I prefer a smooth sauce, so I buy the crushed and puree them before adding the pancetta. You can buy crushed and leave them that texture or you can buy the whole ones and crush them by hand or with a blender before you add them. Once the tomatoes are crushed through whatever method, stir them into the cooked onions and simmer for a few minutes. Stir in the bacon and some red pepper flakes (they are traditionally used in this dish so add them to your desired level of spiciness), then let it all simmer together while you cook the pasta.

I suppose the pasta is fairly important, too, since you can't really make a dinner out of straight up tomato sauce. This is traditionally served with bucatini, which are like spaghetti but with a hole running through the center. Unfortunately, that minimizes the whole slurping romance thing because it would be like trying to suck up a straw. Bucatini is also fairly difficult to locate, but if you can, it's great for this dish because it soaks up all the sauce. Any long pasta will do because they maximize surface area. Cook the pasta to al dente and save some of the water when you drain it. The starch from the pasta is still in the water, which makes it a thickening agent for the sauce if you need it.

One of the main rules of Italian cooking/pasta making is stirring the pasta straight into the sauce. You should NEVER EVER EVER NEVER EVER rinse pasta because it washes all the starch off and you want that starch to make the sauce stick to the pasta. Just take some tongs and swirl the pasta all around the sauce and spoon it onto the plate. I'll admit it's a little hard to make this dish look elegant, but I like to top it with copious amounts of cheese, which helps hide any messiness. Traditionally, this is served with parmesan, but I also like some fresh mozzarella for creaminess and heartiness. To make this into a full meal, serve it with a salad, some focaccia, and a dessert, maybe some Linzer cookies or a chocolate hazelnut tart. It's fast enough to make for a regular weeknight but classy and romantic enough for the perfect Valentine's Day meal.

1/4 lb Pancetta or Bacon
1 Small Yellow Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 28 oz Can Crushed San Marzano Tomatoes
Red Pepper Flakes, To Taste
1 lb Pasta
Grated Parmesan and/or Shredded Mozzarella

Cook the pancetta in a large pot until crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and chop when cool.

Cook the onion and garlic in the pancetta fat until tender and fragrant, about 4-6 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Cook for 10 minutes and puree if desired. Stir in the chopped pancetta and cook for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water. Drain, reserving some of the starchy water. Stir the pasta into the sauce, adding some of the pasta water as necessary. Serve immediately with the cheese, if desired.

Serves 4-6

February 3, 2015

Linzer Cookies

As I see it, you have two options for Valentine's Day. A: you are in a relationship with a wonderful person and you plan to frolic through the snow/flowers/suburbs. B: you are single and will spend the day binge-watching Netflix and complaining about all the happy couples. Honestly, either one could be improved with the addition of cookies, especially when they are filled with jam and dusted with powdered sugar. If that's not your thing, you can make the same recipe and leave them plain so you have dozens of yummy sugar cookies.

Linzer cookies (or jammy dodgers, as our friends in England like to call them) are essentially sandwiches made from sugar cookies and jam, usually with some sort of cutout on the top cookie. For Valentine's Day, I use raspberry, strawberry, or cranberry jam since the red color suits the theme. I also make heart cutouts, which you can get using either a heart-shaped cookie cutter or some wax paper cut into a heart to use as a stencil. I couldn't find my cookie cutter, so I can attest that the wax paper does work, but it gets a little cumbersome if you use it for dozens of cookies. If that's the case, you can always do a few hearts until you get tired and then leave the rest whole.

For the cookie part, I use my go-to rolled sugar cookie recipe. It starts with plenty of butter and sugar as all good sugar cookies should, and then I add some eggs and a generous splash of vanilla. The eggs add a bit of chew so that it's not crumbly (like shortbread). The only other ingredients are the dry ingredients--flour, baking powder, and salt. Regular all-purpose flour is fine, and don't skimp on the salt since it enhances the other flavors and makes the cookies taste like more than pure sugar. I use baking powder instead of baking soda since baking soda makes cookies spread and baking powder makes cookies puff up. Rolled sugar cookies are meant to keep their shape, so you want to minimize spread.

Making and rolling the dough is the hardest part. Just remember to only cut shapes out of half the cookies so you end up with equal numbers of tops and bases so the jam doesn't ooze out of the bottom. I used cookie cutters with scalloped edges that were about 2.75" in diameter, but you can use whatever shaped cutters you have/want. I bake them until the bottoms are barely golden; it should only take a few minutes and you really don't want to overcook them. Don't worry if they are still soft in the middle since they will continue baking after you take them out of the oven.

To assemble the cookies, spread some of the jam on the whole cookies and top with a cutout cookie. If your jam is lumpy and/or firm, put it in a small pot and whisk over low heat until it is smooth. Once it cools down again, it should be easy to spread. Another potential issue is the color. I bought strawberry jam thinking it would be a pretty pinkish red, but I opened it and saw it was a gross light brownish red. It was an easy fix, though; I just stirred in some red food coloring and it was a beautiful bright red. This recipe is pretty hard to mess up since the components are relatively simple, but the cookies are beautiful and sure to impress your date (real or on Netflix).

1 1/2 Sticks Butter, Softened
1 Cup Sugar
2 Eggs
1 tsp Vanilla
2 1/2 Cups Flour
1 tsp Baking Powder
1/2 tsp Salt
3/4 Cup Jam
2 T Powdered Sugar

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar together. Add the eggs one at a time, then stir in the vanilla. Whisk the flour, baking powder, and salt, then gradually add it to the dough.

Split the dough in half and chill until firm, at least 90 minutes.

Heat oven to 375F and line cookie trays with parchment.

Roll the dough out to ¼" thick and cut into desired shapes. For Linzer cookies, cut into 2.75" scalloped circles with shapes cut out of the centers of half of them. Place on the prepared trays and bake until just golden around the bottom, about 6 minutes.

To finish Linzer cookies, spread a spoonful of jam on top of each of the whole circles and top with the cutouts. Sift the powdered sugar on top.

Makes 30+
Recipe Adapted from Back to Her Roots