Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Simplest Mac & Cheese

I know, I've already posted two mac & cheese recipes on this site, but I'm still on a quest for the perfect healthy recipe.  The Mac & Cheese (with Squash!) is yummy, and I love the Broccoli Mac & Cheese, but I have to admit pre-cooking pasta and making a cheese sauce is a bit of a pain.  It's not complicated, but inevitably requires lots of time and creates lots of dishwashing!  I had tried a recipe once before which didn't call for cooking the pasta or making a cheese sauce and it was pretty disappointing (greasy instead of creamy), but when my friend who is an excellent cook passed on a similar recipe, I was intrigued enough to try again.  As it turns out, the main differences in the recipes is that the new one called for 1/4 the amount of cheddar (!) and adding a bread crumb topping.  Less cheese could certainly solve the greasiness problem, but would it be good??

The first time I tried the recipe, I listened to her advice to just throw in an entire small onion instead of measuring 1/4 cup - big mistake!  I'm not sure if she really does this, but I found the resulting dish WAY too oniony (and I love onion!).  Plus, I thought I'd throw in some broccoli, which just complicated the results even more.  I decided to give it another try with no onion or broccoli so I could get a good baseline for the basic recipe. 

The result is a dish which is really tasty, although not particularly cheesy.  I'm not a fan of cottage cheese but couldn't detect it at all, and it really couldn't have been more simple to make.  The whole family gobbled it up as a great side dish to hot dogs (well, the munchkin had it as a side dish to her hot dog bun, but let's not split hairs!).  Next time I'm going to start playing with it again, possibly adding more cheddar since there's really not that much and I don't need the recipe to be quite THAT healthy!  A happy medium of 1:1 ratio cheddar to pasta might be right, instead of double or half.  Also might add in broccoli again (since the broccoli mac and cheese is the only way the munchkin will eat broccoli).  I will keep you posted on the variations, but in the mean time if you're looking for an easy and super healthy mac & cheese recipe, definitely give this one a try, and let me know if you make any changes that work (or not)!

(apologies, no pic again this time; we have gotten really bad at remembering to get out the camera while the food still looks good!  I promise an update at some point in the future! :)

Simplest Mac & Cheese
adapted from my friend

1½ cups cottage cheese (low fat or whole)
1½ cups milk (skim, low fat, or whole) or buttermilk
1 teaspoon dried mustard or 1 tablespoon prepared mustard
Pinch of cayenne
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
¼ cup grated onions (optional; I left this out and didn't miss it)
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (4 oz), or more if you want to experiment
½ pound uncooked elbow macaroni (I used whole wheat)
2 tablespoons finely grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
¼ cup bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375. Prepare a 9x13 baking dish with a light coating of cooking spray or oil (this makes a very shallow mac & cheese...you could also use a smaller dish , or double the recipe in the 9x13).

In a blender or food processor, combine the cottage cheese, skim milk or buttermilk, mustard, cayenne, nutmeg, salt and pepper and puree until smooth.

In a large bowl, combine the pureed mixture with onions (if using; or, if you use a food processor you can process them right in with the milk mixture and not pre-grate), cheddar cheese, and uncooked macaroni. Stir well.  Pour the mixture into the baking pan.

Combine the grated pecorino or parmesan cheese and the bread crumbs and sprinkle over the top.  Bake for about 45 minutes until the top is browned and the center is firm.

Makes 6-8 side dish servings

Monday, September 27, 2010

Crispy Baked Chicken Tenders

Since we started introducing solid foods to the munchkin about a year ago, she has pretty much been a vegetarian.  She was quick to like fruits, grains, dairy, and even eggs, but somehow none of the ways I prepared meat seemed to work for her.  Until I found this recipe for Chicken Teriyaki, which she gobbled up, but only if the chicken was cut into pieces barely bigger than the grains of rice it was mixed with!  And then recently, something changed, and she started becoming more open to different kinds of chicken, whether it be bigger pieces of the same Chicken Teriyaki, some chicken from a salad I ordered out, or chicken parmesan at an italian restaurant.  The theme seemed to be chicken was ok as long as it was really moist from a sauce or breading - fair enough!

So recently, I decided to try making some breaded chicken at home to see if she would really eat it, and boy did she - the first night she ate an entire chicken tender, which is quite a bit for a little munchkin!  I didn't do anything too fancy here; just followed a basic process for breading chicken and baking it in the oven.  The only thing I did to make it more kid friendly was to cut my chicken breasts into strips to make them like tenders, even though I wasn't just using the tender from the breast.  This helped with portioning for the munchkin, and had the added benefit of a higher breading to chicken ratio, but you could easily do the same thing with whole breasts - just adjust the cooking time accordingly.  You can also season your breadcrumbs however you want - I really like romano cheese and basil, but you could easily skip the cheese and use whatever seasoning makes you happy. 

I have to apologize in advance that the recipe may not be exactly right - I was improvising quite a bit and didn't pay attention to exact measurements, so please adjust the amounts as needed for your taste.  In the mean time I thought I'd share the basic idea and I will update if necessary the next time I make these!

Crispy Baked Chicken Tenders

1 lb chicken tenders, or boneless skinless chicken breasts cut into strips
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 egg
3/4 cup plain panko or other dried breadcrumbs (please read ingredients here and find a brand that doesn't include partially hydrogenated oils!  Whole foods and Trader Joes both have good options)
2 tablespoons romano or parmesan cheese
Dried basil (enough so that it is visible throughout breadcrumb mixture)
Pinch of salt
Olive or canola oil spray

Preheat oven to 350 and line a large baking sheet with foil.  Spray baking sheet generously with oil.

Prepare 3 wide, shallow dishes (I used pasta bowls) as follows:  the first with flour, the second with egg beaten with a splash of water, and the third with breadcrumbs mixed with seasonings (in my case, cheese, basil, and salt).  Coat each piece of chicken with the flour, shaking off any excess.  Next, dip into the egg mixture, and finally into the breadcrumbs, ensuring that each piece is completely covered.  Place on prepared baking sheet.

Once all of the chicken is on the baking sheet, spray generously with oil.  Bake for 10-15 minutes until chicken is cooked through (it should be firm to the touch and easily pierced with a fork).  Try not to overbake!  Juicy with a very slight pink tinge is ok as long as you can see the fibers of the chicken are cooked and no longer has any raw texture when cut open.

Serve with the dipping sauce of your choosing - tomato sauce, ketchup, or bbq sauce would all work!

Serves 4

Monday, September 20, 2010

One Bowl Brownies

There is a debate in my family about brownies.  My mom thinks that Duncan Hines makes the best brownies, and I used to agree.  But once I started reading labels I just couldn't bring myself to make anything that includes ingredients like partially hydrogenated oil and artificial flavors.  Brownies shouldn't need factory processed chemicals to be delicious!  And to be honest, once I started thinking about what's in them, they stopped tasting as good to me...I don't know if my taste changed or my mind got in the way of my enjoyment, but I decided there has to be a better alternative. 

So I set out on the somewhat bizarre quest to make brownies that taste as "good" as the ones that come from the box!  I've tried out a few recipes that were promising, but none really blew me away, and my mother still won't let me make brownies for any family function based on my previous experiments.  So when I saw a recipe on Smitten Kitchen that Deb specifically said would appeal to those who love the boxed variety, I was intrigued!  I wanted to make brownies for my brother's family for the Yom Kippur break fast, which presented the perfect opportunity to test the new recipe out on my 5-year-old nephew who also loves brownies from a box.

I thought these brownies were absolutely delicious - dense, fudgy, and such a rich chocolate taste.  My nephew (and everyone else at the table) seemed to agree!  And the best part of this recipe is that it is made in just one bowl (plus a pot that just gets wet, not dirty), with one mixing utensil, and with ingredients that you may very well have in your kitchen already - I didn't have to buy a thing!

So while the holidays have not been the best opportunity to showcase healthy cooking, I feel good that through my experiments with spinach leek dip and brownies, I've proven to myself that we don't need chemicals in neat little packages to have tasty special occasion indulgences - good old wholesome ingredients still do the trick, and the effort involved does not need to be monumental.  Take that food manufacturers!  :)

Btw, how cool is this picture?  Thanks hubby!

One Bowl Brownies
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened natural or Dutch-process cocoa powder (this seems like an awfully fussy measurement to me...it simply means 2 tablespoons short of a cup, which I'd call a scant cup - I just didn't fill my cup all the way and it worked fine!)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 large eggs, cold
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Line the bottom and sides of an 8×8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl on top of a pot of barely simmering water. Stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the pot and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot. It looks fairly gritty at this point, but it smooths out once the eggs and flour are added.

Stir in the vanilla, and then add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one. When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes. Stir in the nuts, if using (I didn't). Spread evenly in the prepared pan.

Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center emerges slightly moist with batter, approximately 30 minutes.

Let cool completely on a rack. Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer the brownies to a cutting board. Cut into 16 squares.

Makes 16 smallish brownies

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Easiest Noodle Kugel

For those of you who may not know what noodle kugel is, it's a dish traditionally served at Jewish holidays (at least in my family!).  It's basically a casserole made with a custard base and egg noodles, and is really yummy - it's almost like sweet mac & cheese with sour cream instead of cheese, and corn flakes on top instead of breadcrumbs :).  Not the most healthy dish - refined pasta loaded with butter, sour cream, and sugar, but hey, we're still talking about the holidays here!  But if it can't be a healthy side dish, can't it at least be easy?  Most noodle kugel recipes require cooking the pasta as a separate step (and creating another pot to clean), but I found one years ago that just requires putting uncooked pasta right in the baking dish.  Perfect. 

The resulting dish is soft, a little sweet, creamy, and delicious.  Everyone out there seems to have an idea of what kugel should be like - some will say there has to be raisins, or pineapple, or it should have cottage cheese, cinnamon, etc, but I really like this very simple recipe.  That being said, feel free to experiment - I think there's lots of room for playing here!

Btw, apologies for no picture on this post...forgot to take them while it was still fresh and didn't want to discourage anyone by taking pictures after it was already cold!  I promise to update when I make this again next year :)

Easiest Noodle Kugel
adapted from Epicurious

8 ounces wide egg noodles (feel free to try with whole wheat egg noodles if you can find them - I looked but didn't see any!)
1 cup raisins (optional)
5 large eggs
1 cup sour cream
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, cooled
1/3 cup sugar (if you like a really sweet kugel you might want to increase this amount, but I like the lightly sweet version)
4 cups whole milk (or lowfat...I used half whole and half 1% with good results)
1 teaspoon vanilla

3 cups cornflakes, coarsely crushed (I used Nature's Path organic)
1/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 13 x 9 x 2-inch glass baking dish.

Spread uncooked noodles over bottom of prepared dish and sprinkle with raisins, if using. Whisk together eggs, sour cream, butter, sugar, milk, and vanilla in large bowl until smooth. Pour mixture over noodles and let kugel stand 5 minutes.

Mix cornflakes and brown sugar in bowl and sprinkle evenly over kugel.

Bake kugel until set in center, about 1 hour. Cut into squares. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Serves 12

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Spinach Leek Dip

Last week, I was lucky enough to be invited to my parents' and bother's houses for Rosh Hashanah, which meant I got two great holiday meals that I didn't have to host!  Of course, my mom and sister-in-law each asked for a different contribution.  For night one I made chocolate cheesecake which came out delicious, but I'm thinking it's not really a simple or wholesome enough creation for this blog.  For night two, I was responsible for bringing some snacks to nosch on before dinner.  I decided I'd bring a spinach dip, home-made pita chips, carrot sticks, and some grapes.  Pita chips were easy - you might recall my recipe that went along with the edamame hummus?  Well, I followed the same method but seasoned the chips simply with salt.

As for spinach dip, it turns out almost every recipe on the internet involves either a powdered soup mix (partially hydrogenated soybean oil?  disodium inosinate? I think not!) or has cheese in it and is meant to be served hot, which would have meant bothering my sister-in-law in the kitchen as she prepared a meal for 11 people.  I finally found a recipe on the Cookstr blog for Spinach-Leek Dip that looked tasty.  I was a little nervous since it had no reviews and I've never tried any of their recipes, but in the absense of a better choice I decided to give it a try!

The resulting dip was delicious, and everyone seemed to enjoy it.  This is a recipe I'd really like to play with, though, potentially using frozen spinach instead of fresh (to skip the wilting step), onions instead of leeks and/or shallots (if I can't find organic leeks, onions always seem to be available! plus, I think a stronger oniony flavor would be nice), and a little less fat by replacing some of the mayo and sour cream with greek yogurt (I've seen this in other recipes as a way to reduce the fat while keeping the creaminess and tang).  If anyone out there decides to give these ideas a try, please let me know how it goes!  But overall, for a full-fat dip this one is certainly tasty and simple enough to make.

Spinach Leek Dip
adapted from Cookstr

4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
2 6-ounce bags baby spinach
1 cup thinly sliced leeks (white part only)
1/4 cup chopped shallots
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill or 1 teaspoon dried dill
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used less because I'm scared of cayenne, but you couldn't really detect the heat to feel free to use this full amount or potentially more if you want a kick)

Heat 2 teaspoons of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. In batches, stir in the spinach, wilting each batch before adding more. Sprinkle the spinach with 1 tablespoon water, cover, and cook until the spinach is tender, about 5 minutes. Allow to cool and squeeze out excess liquid by placing in a clean kitchen towel, forming a pouch, and twisting the top so all the liquid comes out through the towel (I have a green-stained towel in my kitchen dedicated to this purpose - it is really much easier and more effective than the handful at a time squeezing approach). Chop coarsely, but don't go overboard - it's just going in the food processor later anyway :)

Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in the skillet over medium heat. Add the leeks and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 3 minutes. Stir in the shallots and cook, stirring often, until softened, about 2 minutes. Cool completely.

Combine the spinach, cooled vegetables, sour cream, mayonnaise, dill, and cayenne in a food processor and process until blended. Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly. Refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.

Serve chilled with pita chips, tortilla chips, veggies, or anything else you can think of!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Summer in review...I'm back!!

Hi everybody!!  Sorry for the long hiatus...I didn't plan to take the whole summer off, but, well, we've had a lot going on.  First of all, we moved!  After 9 years of city life and a year and a half entertaining a munchkin with a lot of energy in a 2 bedroom apartment, we finally decided leave the city in search of real space.  I am now officially a suburbanite and, despite initial mixed feelings about moving, absolutely loving it.  You might not think that moving justifies a 2 month vacation from blogging, but let me add that for about a month this summer we were homeless - apartment was sold but we didn't have our house yet, so we were crashing with my parents.  And despite the fact that my mom has a fabulous kitchen, somehow not being in my own home did not encourage a lot of cooking.

On top of the multiple moves (as if that wasn't enough!), the munchkin is going to become a big sister next March!  Very exciting, but unfortunately first trimester fatigue and food aversions took my already limited motivation to experiment in the kitchen down to approximately zero. 

I'm hoping you'll forgive my absence now that you know why!  Especially since now that the first trimester is over and I'm all settled into my new home with my own fabulous non-apartment sized kitchen, my motivation is back in full force!  I already have a backlog of recipes to post.  In the mean time, while it has taken me a while to start trying new recipes again, I have been referring back to this blog for cooking ideas while I got organized.  I thought I'd highlight some old favorites that I've retested and still love :)

Whole Wheat Oatmeal Pancakes: I have made these twice in the past few weeks, and they are really delicious...you would never think they are so packed with whole grains, and the spices add enough flavor that I actually enjoy them without any syrup!  Talk about a healthy snack :)  I've updated the recipe since I've now had luck using a combination of milk and yogurt instead of buttermilk, which is not something I generally have on hand.

100% Whole Wheat Bread: Really yummy with way less effort than I would have ever imagined - amazing way impress everyone you know by making bread from scratch.  Although I just got a bread machine now that I have a real kitchen, so stay tuned for some bread machine specific recipes!

Salmon Cakes: Every time I make these I'm actually surprised how much I like them :)  I've updated the instructions with a tip on coating the patties with breadcrumbs without having them fall apart.

Lentil Soup: I have made this for company twice in the past few weeks and got rave reviews from visitors ranging from age 1 to 88!  This included the munchkin, who is generally not a fan of vegetables, as well as my very picky dad :).  I've updated the directions slightly based on my recent experiment with green lentils instead of red (the red give a prettier color and cook faster, but green turns out equally delicious!)  This is something I always like to have in my freezer for the perfect lunch or dinner any time.

Also, as a preview of what's to come, I think I'm finally ready to share the rest of my pizza story!  Plus, I made some really tasty chicken tenders and a wholesome spinach dip that did not require powdered seasoning from a packet :)  Stay tuned for more!