Meat Free Mondays – Quinoa

You are starting to hear more about quinoa lately.

Quinoa is a lot like rice, except it’s better for you and easier to cook. I’ve already chronicled my struggles to make brown rice. Quinoa gives you the same nutritional value with half the effort. It’s almost impossible to screw up and, in my opinion, the flavor is far superior.

Plus quinoa comes with an incredible back story. It originally comes from Central and South America, where it was held sacred by the Incas more than 4,000 years ago as the “mother of all grains.” Traditionally, the Inca emperor would sow the first grains of the growing season using golden implements.

When the Spanish conquistadores invaded that area in the 15th Century and discovered the Incas praying to their quinoa, they burned their crops and forced them to grow wheat instead.

Fortunately, quinoa staged a comeback and today is becoming increasingly popular as a base for salads, side dishes and even this entree.

In fact, the United Nations has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. Take that, conquistadores!

Yellow Squash Stuffed with Quinoa

1 Large yellow squash

1 cup Quinoa

2 cups Water

1 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 cup Black beans, drained

1 cup Corn, Cooked, charred and cut off the cob

1/2 Red onion, small dice

1 Jalapeno, seeds and ribs removed, small dice

1/2 Green bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

1 clove Garlic, crushed

1 TBS Cumin

1 tsp Chile powder

1 tsp Granulated garlic

1/3 cup Grated parmesan

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cut yellow squash in half length-wise, then use a teaspoon to remove the seeds and hollow out, leaving about 1/2 inch wall on all sides and bottom. Place squash in boiling water and cook 5 minutes, then remove with tongs, dump water, fill pot with cold water and return squash to the water to halt the cooking process. Remove from the water and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, bring two cups of water to a boil in a sauce pan. Stir in quinoa, cover, return to boil, reduce to simmer and cook 18 minutes. Turn off flame and let sit for 15 minutes, then fluff with fork.

3. Put cast iron pan on the fire over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, jalapeno and green pepper and saute until onion is translucent, about five minutes. Add garlic, cumin, chile powder and granulated garlic and cook another minute then remove from heat.

4. Preheat oven to 375F. Fold sauteed vegetables, black beans, corn and about half the parmesan into the quinoa. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Place half the quinoa mixture on the bottom of an 8″x8″x2″ casserole dish, then place yellow squash canoes on top. Use a tablespoon to stuff the squash with the remaining quinoa mixture. Sprinkle the top with the remaining parmesan and cover tightly with aluminum foil.

5. Bake at 375F for 25 minutes, remove foil and bake another 10 minutes to brown up the parmesan.

Quinoa is a very versatile grain. It actually is considered a pseudocereal because it is not a member of the grass family, but instead it is related to beets, spinach and tumbleweeds.

It has a mildly sweet and nutty flavor and a soft texture that reminds me of couscous. Look for it in either the baking supplies or dried beans aisles of your grocery store.

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Cupboard Casserole

Last week, I wrote about a blogger, My Vegetarian Kitchen, who was trying not to buy any more food until she used up everything she had in her kitchen.

This wonderful blog post continues to inspire me. So I decided to try to create at least one meal without having to go buy anything new.

This experience is similar to the way restaurant owners sometimes try out potential chef candidates. They are given a “black box” full of ingredients and given the task of creating something original and delicious. They are given no advance knowledge of what the ingredients will be.

I’ve always enjoyed those kind of tryouts, so I was looking forward to this experiment in my own kitchen. The only problem was I didn’t have much lying around: some frozen ground turkey, a half a bag of egg noodles and not much else.

I tore my cupboard apart, dismissing those items that simply wouldn’t work — a can of lentils, half full bags of assorted grains and beans — until I found a couple that would, such as a can of peas and a lone envelope of Mrs. Grass Onion Soup Mix.

The refrigerator was pretty sparse as well, but I did manage to find half an onion and half a green pepper, as well as some partially full containers of fat free cottage cheese and sour cream.

I used these ingredients to whip up what I told my wife was “Cupboard Casserole”. It actually turned out pretty delicious, especially since I made it out of essentially nothing. It wasn’t good enough that I would put it on a restaurant menu, but we enjoyed it and saved some money at the same time.

Now, if you will excuse me I have to go grocery shopping.

Cupboard Casserole

1/2 lb ground turkey

1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, ribs and seeds removed, medium dice

1 jalapeno pepper, ribs and seeds removed, small dice

1 TBS extra virgin olive oil

1/2 bag dry egg noodles

1 cup fat free cottage cheese

1/2 cup fat free sour cream

1 can reduced fat cream of chicken soup

1 envelope Mrs. Grass Onion Soup Mix

1 can peas, drained

1 dash Worcestershire sauce

1 dash Tabasco sauce

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1. Cook egg noodles according to package instructions, about 7 minutes. They should be slightly undercooked so that they will absorb some of the liquid while the casserole is cooking. Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. Meanwhile, put cast iron pan on fire. When hot, add oil. When smoking, add onions and peppers. Cook until onions translucent, about three minutes, then add turkey, using a spatula to break it apart into small peices. Cook until turkey is browned, about five minutes, then remove from heat and let cool.

3. Preheat oven to 375F. In a mixing bowl, combine egg noodles, turkey mixture, cream of chicken soup, the onion soup mix, the sour cream, cottage cheese, Worcestershire and Tabasco and blend together with a spatula. Season to taste with salt and pepper then transfer to a casserole dish. Sprinkle with bread crumbs, cover and bake for 35 minutes. Remove cover and bake another 10 minutes.

What kinds of meals do you make out of whatever you have lying around your kitchen? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Jambalaya Casserole

Tuesday is Mardi Gras and the parade season is in full swing in New Orleans.

I’m a huge fan of New Orleans cuisine and culture, but sadly I don’t get there often enough. I am, however, a regular listener to WWOZ-FM, the city’s public radio station devoted to New Orleans music and culture. So I’ve been listening as the carnival parade routes are annouced each day.

While I can’t make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras this year, I am getting the ball rolling with this Jambalaya casserole. Jambalaya is a Louisiana dish that can contain a wide variety of ingredients, depending on who is making it, but it usually has chicken, sausage and sometimes shrimp and is served with rice.

I’ve modified my standard jambalaya into a casserole because it has been very busy around here (one of the reasons I can’t make it to the Crescent City this weekend) and casseroles are versatile enough so that they can be made ahead of time then just heated up whenever it’s time to eat.

Mardi Gras is a celebration of the fun things in life prior to the start of the Roman Catholic season of Lent, which begins Ash Wednesday and runs until Easter Sunday. Mardi Gras, which is French for “Fat Tuesday” is traditionally the day people let loose, drink a little bit, eat rich food and enjoy all the other good things that are not allowed during the Lenten season.

Being the good Catholic that I am (University of Notre Dame ’86, go Irish!), I follow the Lenten protocols, such as no meat on Fridays and fasting during Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

But New Orleans fan that I am, I also celebrate the Mardi Gras and  hold a deep respect for the traditions of second line parades, floats, beads and everything else that make up this amazing cultural tradition.

So laissez les bon temps rouler, let the good times roll and enjoy your Mardi Gras weekend wherever you are!

Jambalaya Casserole

2 TBS EVOO, separated

1 boneless skinless chicken breast, about 8 oz

1/2 lb of Italian sausage

Sea salt

1/2 tsp granulated garlic

1/2 tsp onion powder

1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 yellow bell pepper, medium dice

1/2 red bell pepper, medium dice

1/2 green bell pepper, medium dice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 package dry egg noodles

1 cup fat free cottage cheese

1/2 cup fat free sour cream

4 oz can tomato sauce

1 TSP Tony Cachere’s Creole Seasoning

1 tsp Tabasco sauce

Fresh cracked black pepper to taste

1/2 cup shredded Mexican cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Put cast iron pan on fire. When hot, add 1 TBS EVOO. When smoking, make a cut down the center of each sausage, remove from casing and place in pan, being careful not to splash yourself with hot oil. Use spatula to break into 1″ pieces and brown all sides, about three minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove from pan and set aside.

2. Return cast iron pan to fire. When smoking, season both sides of chicken breast with salt, pepper, granulated garlic and onion powder and carefully place in the pan. Cook until bottom side is browned, then flip and cook another two minutes. Place the whole pan in the oven and cook until chicken is fully cooked, about 15 to 20 minutes depending on the thickness of the breast. Remove from oven. Cool then chop into bite sized pieces

3. Clean cast iron pan and return to fire. When hot, add remaining EVOO. When smoking, add onioins and peppers and cook until onions translucent, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute then remove from heat.

4. Cook egg noodles according to package directions, usually about 7 minutes. You want to undercook the noodles just a little. Strain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process then return to the pot. Add chicken, sausage, cottage cheese, sour cream, Tony’s, vegetable mixture, hot sauce and pepper. Stir and transfer to casserole dish. Sprinkle with shredded cheese then grated parm and cover. Casserole can be cooked right away or stored in refrigerator or freezer until ready to use.

5. Cook covered casserole 35 minutes at 350F then remove cover and cook another 10 minutes to crisp the top. If cooking from frozen, cooking time will be closer to an hour.

During the Lenten season, which starts this Wednesday, I’m planning on starting a new feature called Seafood Fridays. Each week I will be featuring a seafood recipe that is both delicious and Lenten compliant.

Happy Mardi Gras, everybody!

Lasagne Quattro Formaggi

This recipe started out as a good idea, but it didn’t work in practice.

See, I had this idea for a dish called lasagna roll-ups, which was pretty much just like it sounds. But when it came time to assemble it, it just didn’t work.

So this dish was Plan B.

Like Garfield, lasagna is one of my favorite foods. I tend to make lasagna a lot, but I try to keep it fresh by putting different ingredients in it each time. “Quattro formaggi” is simply Italian for four cheeses. In this case, cottage cheese, cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan.

I wouldn’t say lasagna is a quick meal to make because there are a lot of different components. But it is quick to assemble because you can make everything ahead of time at your leisure and just throw it together at the last minute. It’s also convenient because once you assemble it, it can sit in your refrigerator or freezer until you are ready to eat.

It is quite inexpensive as well. Most pasta dishes usually are. The only ingredient that is not completely rock-bottom cheap would be the fat free cottage cheese, and even that was only about $3 for the 1 lb container.

Lasagne Quattro Formaggi

1/2 box dried lasagna noodles

2 TBS extra virgin olive oil, separated

1 lb ground turkey

1/2 white onion, medium dice

1/2 green pepper, medium dice

2 cloves garlic, crushed

8 oz can tomato sauce

2 TBS Italian seasoning

2 tsp sugar

8 oz fat free cottage cheese (or ricotta)

1 egg

1 pkg frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and drained

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/3 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1. Boil noodles according to package instructions, usually about 10 minutes. Strain and cool under cold water to stop the cooking process. Set aside.

2. Put cast iron pan on fire. When hot add EVOO. When the pan is smoking, add the turkey and cook until browned. Remove from heat and set aside

3. Put sauce pan on fire. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking add onion and green pepper. Cook until onion translucent, about five minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute, then add tomato sauce, browned ground turkey, Italian seasoning and sugar. Stir together, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook about five minutes.

4. Combine fat free cottage cheese and egg in mixing bowl. Squeeze excess liquid from spinach then add to bowl, season with salt and pepper and mix well.

5. To assemble, spoon a little tomato sauce on the bottom of a casserole dish, then lay strips of lasagna noodles until the entire bottom is covered. Add a layer of the cottage cheese/spinach mixture, then another layer of the sauce. Repeat: lasagna noodles-cottage cheese/spinach-sauce. Repeat again. Top with another layer of noodles, a little more sauce than sprinkle the top with the shredded cheddar and mozzarella. Finally, sprinkle the parmesan over the top and cover with foil. The lasagna can be stored in the refrigerator until you are ready to eat or cooked right away.

6. Preheat oven to 375F. Cook lasagna for 35 minutes covered, then remove cover and cook another 10 minutes so the top gets browned up. Remove from oven and let stand a few minutes before cutting into it.

Have you ever had a great idea for a dish that just didn’t work out? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Tex-Mex Tuna Casserole

Wow, it’s already February! Where has this year gone?!

Both my wife and I have been extremely busy since pretty much Thanksgiving, so I have been looking for meals that are fast and delicious, but will also hold well to accomodate our ever-changing schedules.

Tuna casserole is always a good fall back option, but it feels like we’ve done it to death. So I decided to spice it up a little with this recipe I adapted from one I found on The Cooking Blog. It takes only a few minutes to prepare, it can be held in the refrigerator until we were ready to eat, and it cooks fast. Plus, it was pretty rich and creamy — despite being low-fat — so I was able to hold it in a 200F oven until we were both ready to eat.

This spiced-up version of tuna casserole was delicious and — like traditional tuna casserole — it tastes even better the next day heated up.

So if you’re looking for a new take on an old favorite, you should give this recipe a try. Most of the ingredients are probably already lying around your kitchen, plus it’s super fast, super easy, and super tasty! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to work!

Tex-Mex Tuna Casserole

1 large can chunk tuna in water, drained

2 cups fat-free cottage cheese

3/4 cup fat-free sour cream

1/2 red onion, small dice

1 small can diced green chiles

2 TBS chipotle salsa (or just regular salsa)

1/2 bag egg noodles, cooked

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1/2 cup cashews, chopped fine

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Boil egg noodles according to package instructions, usually about 7 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. In mixing bowl, combine the tuna, cottage cheese, sour cream, onion, chiles, salsa and noodles. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to casserole dish.

3. Combine bread crumbs and cashews in small bowl then sprinkle over casserole. Dish can be stored in refrigerator up to a day, or in freezer for up to a week, until you are read to serve it.

4. Bake at 350F for 45 minutes or until casserole is brown and bubbly. Allow more time if cooking from frozen, or better yet allow to defrost first.

I served mine with spicy Sriracha sauce. My wife normally puts ketchup on her tuna casserole (I know, right?) but she said this one was so good it didn’t need any! Yay!

What quick and easy meals do you like to prepare for those days when you’re too busy to spend a lot of time in the kitchen? Share your story in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Easy Tuna Tetrazzini with Spinach

The weeks between the end of the holidays and the beginning of Spring always seem like the busiest time of the whole year.

It’s as if life says, “Okay, now it’s really time to get down to business.” Somehow workdays get busier and evenings begin to fill up with events and responsibilities that weren’t there only a few weeks ago.

From a cooking perspective, this gets complicated. That’s why in winter I always simplify matters with casseroles and crock pots.

Casseroles and crock pots allow you to prepare ahead of time for times you know you’re going to be stressful. Two or three meals can be prepared at once, then stored in the refrigerator or even the freezer until they are needed.

My crock pot has certainly gotten a workout in the past couple of weeks, so it was time to focus on hearty and filling casseroles. But casseroles don’t have to be the same old familiar standards time and time again.

This recipe is a twist on the tuna casserole recipe we’ve all had thousands of times before. It takes familiar ingredients and mixes them up in a way that’s fresh, delicious and unexpected. The tuna could easily be replaced with leftover chicken, ground turkey or beef, or even pork.

Easy Tuna Tetrazzini with Spinach

8 oz dry whole wheat linguine, broken into thirds (half box)

1 10-1/2 oz can cream of celery soup

1 10-oz box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained

1/2 cup milk

2 6-oz cans white chunk tuna in water, drained

1/4 cup oven roasted tomatoes (or jarred roasted red peppers), rough chop

1/2 tsp granulated garlic

1/2 tsp onion powder

1 tsp Italian seasoning

1/4 tsp hot sauce

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

1/4 cup Italian-style dry bread crumbs

2 TBS grated parmesan

1 TBS unsalted butter

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Spray 9-inch square casserole dish with pan spray. Cook linguine according to package instructions, drain and run under cold water to stop the cooking process.

2. In a mixing bowl, combine pasta, soup, tuna, milk and tomatoes. Season with granulated garlic, onion powder, hot sauce and Italian seasoning and mix. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to baking dish.

3. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, parmesan and butter. Use your fingers to mix the butter into the dry ingredients until the butter chunks are the size of small pebbles. Sprinkle evenly over casserole and bake in oven uncovered for 45 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly.

What kind of dishes do you like to cook to make busy days more manageable? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!

Improving the Cheeseburger

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, as a professional chef it can be dispiriting when the cheeseburger is the number one seller on your menu despite all the effort you put in creating interesting and exotic dishes.

One way to overcome this is to make your cheeseburger more exciting. If people are going to order it anyway, why not make it something special? So today’s blog is all about finding ways to improve the humble cheeseburger.

Bacon Mushroom Swiss Burger

Bacon Mushroom Swiss Burger

Probably the easiest way to improve the cheeseburger is to use a better quality meat. I’m not talking about $15/lb Kobe beef or even ground up Certfied Angus Beef. This is supposed to be a budget cooking blog, remember?

No, to improve the quality of your cheeseburger meat, look for ground beef that has a higher fat content. That’s right, higher! Ground beef that is 75:25, which means 75 percent protein to 25 percent fat, will be juicier and have a much better mouth feel than leaner ground beef, such as 85:15 or 90:10. Fat makes beef taste good. If you ate 100 percent lean ground beef, it would taste like sawdust.

Avocado Pepper Jack Burger

Avocado Pepper Jack Burger

The second way to improve your cheeseburger is to season it. This may seem obvious, but a lot of people skip this critical step. You need to season both sides of the burger with a good amount of salt and pepper in order to bring out the full flavor of the beef. If you want to mix a little S&P into your ground beef before forming into patties as well, then that’s a bonus!

A third way to make cheeseburgers taste better is to toast the burger bun. Rub it with a little olive oil or melted butter and put it into your frying pan or on your grill for less than a minute to give it a little crust. That way, when you bite into the burger, there will be a satisfying little crunch.

Burger Set Ups

Burger Set Ups

Burger set-ups are a restaurant secret that speeds up service. Before the customers arrive for the lunch or dinner rush, the cook lines up hundreds of little individual piles of lettuce, tomato and onion. When the orders start flying, the cook need only grab one of these and place it on the bun as the food goes out the service window. This same technique can speed up your dinner service as well.

Incidentally, unless you are working at McDonald’s, use red leaf or green leaf lettuce for your setups, not shredded iceberg lettuce. It may be the cheapest, but that stuff has little to no nutritional value. Plus it just screams fast food.

The final method to add dimension to your cheeseburger is to offer a variety of toppings. There are restaurant chains that have built their entire business model around this idea. Not only can burgers be topped with a variety of cheeses — American, Swiss, cheddar, pepper jack and blue cheese are some of the most popular choices — but other interesting toppings can be offered as well.

These include sliced olives, avocados, mushrooms, sliced jalapenos, sprouts and grilled onions. There’s even a famous Pittsburgh chain that tops its signature burgers with cole slaw, French fries and even a fried egg!

As long as we are breaking traditions, how about throwing out the French fries and serving your next cheeseburger with something different, like this potato casserole.

Cheesy Potato Casserole

Cheesy Potato Casserole
Cheesy Potato Casserole

3 russet potatoes, pre-baked and shredded

1/2 white onion, diced

2 scallions, sliced

8 oz cheddar cheese, shredded (about 1-1/2 cups)

8 oz cottage cheese

8 oz sour cream

1 tsp granulated garlic

Dash of hot sauce

Dash of Worchestershire sauce

Sea Salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

2 TBS butter

1/2 cup bread crumbs

1. Preheat oven to 375F. Combine shredded potato, cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream, granulated garlic, onion, scallion, hot sauce and Worchestershire sauce in a mixing bowl and gently mix together with a spatula. Season to taste with salt and pepper and mix again. Spray a casserole dish with pan spray and transfer mixture to casserole dish.

2. Combine bread crumbs and butter in a small mixing bowl and cut together with a pastry cutter or just between your fingers until the texture is pebbly. Sprinkle over casserole.

3. Cook covered for 40 minutes. Remove cover and cook an additional 10 minutes to toast up the bread crumb topping. Remove from oven and allow to rest for about 10 minutes before serving to let casserole set up a little. If you serve it right away, it will be goopy.

What are some interesting ways you liven up everyday dishes? Share your ideas in the comments section below. And thanks for looking at my blog!