Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

As the weather begins to get warmer, I begin a desperate effort to make just a few more crock pot recipes before it’s time to put it away for the season.

There’s really nothing preventing me from using the crock pot during the summer months, but it just doesn’t feel right. It would be like buying a snow shovel in July.

My crock pot is great for the winter, but it’s even better during these in between times, when the temperature is warming, yet still crisp enough to send a chill down your neck.

It’s precisely these kinds of days when a warm soup slowly stewing in the crock pot brings the most comfort. Mix up a batch of jalapeno cornbread just before dinner is served and you have the perfect dinner for a cool mid-Spring evening.

Like most crock pot recipes, this soup is extremely economical. Of course, beans and the produce cost next to nothing, but in this soup I used ham scraps leftover from a long ago meal that have been waiting patiently in the freezer for precisely this moment.

You also could use a leftover ham bone or a smoked ham hock. Or simply leave the ham out altogether for a delightful vegetarian dinner soup.

I used Cannellini beans because they are a little larger than Great Northerns and I think they give the soup a little more substance.

If you haven’t used it before, escarole is a type of rough lettuce, kind of like a mix between green leaf lettuce and kale. I don’t generally make a salad out of it on its own because it has a little too much texture, but it is perfect for fortifying other salad greens or throwing into a soup like this one.

Escarole adds an iron-rich flavor that is similar to spinach but not as strong.

Ham, White Bean and Escarole Soup

1 TBS Extra virgin olive oil

1 Medium white onion, diced

2 Carrots, peeled and diced

2 Celery stalks, leaves included, diced

8 oz Ham, small dice

2  cans Cannellini beans, drained

1/2 head Escarole lettuce, rough chop

16 oz Low-fat, low-sodium chicken stock (or vegetable stock)

1 tsp Dried thyme

1 tsp Dried basil

1 clove Garlic, crushed

Sea salt

Fresh cracked black pepper

1. Place cast iron pan over a medium heat. When hot, add EVOO. When smoking, add onions, carrot and celery. This combination of vegetables is called a mirepoix (MEER-eh-pwah) and is the basis for many soup recipes. Saute until onions are translucent, about five minutes, then add ham and saute another two minutes. Add garlic, saute another minute, then add to crock pot.

2. Add to crock pot the beans, thyme, basil and stock. Set dial to low and cook for about seven hours. During the final hour of cooking, stir in the escarole. Continue cooking on low for another hour. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

This very basic soup recipe can be transformed into any number of variations by adding or substituting different types of beans, proteins, seasonings and even greens.

You can even add pastas, such as elbow macaroni or orzo, and a little crushed tomato if you want to make a  more traditional Italian soup.

 

Meat Free Mondays – Creamy Orzo Risotto with Butternut Squash

As we continue with Meat Free Mondays — our commitment to cook at least one meal per week without meat — it is sometimes a challenge to find a vegetarian dish that satisfies our protein cravings at dinnertime.

Pasta can be one solution. It is starchy and filling, while at the same time complements whatever other ingredients you combine with it.

Creamy Orzo Risotto with Butternut Squash and Jalapeno Cornbread

Creamy Orzo Risotto with Butternut Squash and Jalapeno Cornbread

Orzo, which frequently is used in Greek cuisine, is an unusual pasta that is shaped like a long rice grain. While it is manufactured from hard wheat semolina like other pastas, cooked orzo takes on the creamy texture of barley or risotto, both of which are grains.

This time of year, there is an abundance of inexpensive squash in the marketplace, including acorn, carnaval, and spaghetti. Butternut squash has a subtle yet distinct flavor that shines as the centerpeice of this simple yet elegent vegetarian entree. Its slightly nutty and sweet taste perfectly complements the sharpness of the parmesan, and the fresh thyme adds a nice herby tone.

I chose to pair it with jalapeno cornbread because I love the way it crumbles into the pasta as you eat it. And the pepper adds just the slightest kick to this otherwise laid back meal.

The squash can be cooked off ahead of time. Because I prefer to cook off the whole squash at once, I had plenty of roasted diced squash left over to save for sprinkling onto salads or garnishing soups.

Cleaning a butternut squash is easy. Simply cut off the top and bottom, then cut it in half horizontally, leaving a larger globular half and a smaller enlongated half. Use a chef’s knife to cut away the tough outer skin of both halves. Then cut the large, round peice in half again vertically and use an ice cream scoop to remove the seeds and strings.

I adapted this recipe from Weight Watchers, so it is low-fat and healthy as well as delicious! We’ve made it many times, and although it’s not complicated, it is very, very flavorful and quite satisfying.

Creamy Orzo Risotto with Butternut Squash

2 cups butternut squash, cut into small cubes

1 TBS EVOO

1/8 tsp sea salt

1/2 TBS unsalted butter

1 cup uncooked orzo

2-1/2 cups chicken stock

1 tsp fresh thyme (you can substitute dried thyme or even sage)

2 TBS fat-free half and half

1/2 cup grated parmesan

Sea salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste

Shaved parmesan for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 425F. In a mixing bowl, toss the diced squash in the EVOO and 1/8 tsp salt, then lay out onto baking sheet in single layer and roast until softened, about 25 minutes. This can be done ahead of time and refrigerated for later use.

Melt butter in medium saucepan. Add the orzo and toast the pasta until it begins to brown and gives off a nutty aroma, about three minutes. Then add the chicken stock and thyme, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and let cook uncovered until all the stock is nearly absorbed into the orzo, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Fold in the half and half, squash and grated parm and heat through, about one minute. Season with salt and pepper and garnish with shaved parm.

Do you have any vegetarian pasta entrees that satisfy your protein cravings? Why not share them in the comments section below? And, as always, thanks for looking at my blog!

Football Chili

The weather turned sharply cooler in Chicago this week, and that made me think of one thing.

Football.

And that made me think of another thing.

Chili.

Football Chili

Football Chili

To me, chili and football go hand-in-hand. Whether you prefer Saturday’s college games, or Sunday’s pro spectacles, or both, having a pot of chili brewing in the crock pot makes your football experience complete. It’s hot, it’s spicy, it’s filling, and you can return to the pot for refills all day long.

You can tell a lot about somebody by the way they make their chili. In high school, the family of a friend of mine owned a meat packing company. They used beef tenderloin in their chili. I’ve seen downtown chefs make minimalist chili with crystal clear tomato consumee and perfectly shaped diced vegetables. That ain’t right, either.

I was recently in Cincinnati and they put spaghetti in their chili. Wait, what?!

Self-Serve Chili Bar

Self-Serve Chili Bar

Professionally and personally, I’ve made dozens of different kinds of chili – white chili and green chili; black beans, red beans or white beans; five alarm chili (super hot) to old lady chili (spiceless). But for football chili, I always go back to the same basic recipe: Red beans, ground meat and vegetables in a spicy tomato-based sauce.

I love to let people personalize their chili by choosing their own favorites from an array of toppings. I usually offer sour cream, shredded cheese, macaroni, scallions, diced white onion, and at least two kinds of hot sauce.

A bowl of chili is great by itself, but it’s even better with a slice of homemade jalapeno cornbread. That alone almost makes a Chicago winter worthwhile.

Jalapeno Cornbread

Jalapeno Cornbread

Cornbread is a quick bread, meaning it’s leavened with baking power instead of yeast and you don’t have to knead it. Even if you never baked before, it’s almost foolproof and absolutely delicious. Serve it right out of the oven with a little butter softened to room temperature. Yum.

So here’s the recipe for my standard football chili and jalapeno cornbread. I hope it makes you feel as warm on the inside as it does me.

Football Chili

2  15 oz cans cans dark red kidney beans

14 oz can diced tomatoes

13-1/2 oz can of Mexican diced tomatoes w/ chiles

2 cups spicy V-8

1 lb. ground turkey (or ground beef, or beef and pork mixture, whatever you want)

1 TBS cumin

1/2 TBS chili powder

1 medium white onion, diced

1 green pepper, seeds and ribs removed, diced

2 jalapenos, seeds and ribs removed, diced

1 clove garlic, minced

TBS EVOO

S&P to taste

Heat cast iron pan then add EVOO. When smoking, add ½ the chopped onion and sauté until translucent, about five minutes. Add the ground meat and cook until browned, about another 10 minutes (If using ground beef, pork or a combination, you’ll want to drain the fat at this point). Stir in cumin and chili powder and cook an additional 2-3 minutes and remove from heat.

Drain beans and add to crock pot, along with remaining onion, green pepper, jalapeno, garlic, diced tomatoes and tomatoes w/ chiles. Add the cooked meat, then cover all with spicy V-8. Stir it all together, then cook on the low setting for 4-7 hours. Season with S&P to taste just before service.

If you don’t have a crock pot, stop reading this and immediately go get one. They are a critical piece of autumn and winter cooking equipment. But seriously, if you don’t have one, you can make this recipe on the stovetop. Just cook it over a low flame for about an hour, stirring occasionally.

Jalapeno Cornbread

1 cup All Purpose Flour

2 TBS sugar

TBS baking powder

½ tsp salt

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup milk

2 eggs, beaten

¼ cup vegetable oil

3-4 jalapenos, ribs and seeds removed, diced

Preheat oven to 425F. Grease your cast iron skillet — I use pan spray — and throw it in the oven.

1. While the oven is warming, combine milk, eggs and oil in a bowl. In another bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cornmeal. Slowly stir liquid mixture into powder mixture just until batter is wet. Fold in jalapenos, then use potholders to remove skillet from oven and pour batter into skillet.

2. Cook for about 25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

This recipe can also be made in a 9”x9” baking dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray.

A note on jalapenos: These green Mexican chile peppers are only hot if you leave the ribs and seeds in. Once they are removed, jalapenos are not much hotter than a green bell pepper, but add a nice zesty flavor to whatever you add them to. They are also rich in Vitamin C, among other nutrients. You will, however, want to wash your hands after handling jalapenos to avoid getting burning eyes or other areas.

So this weekend, set up a little self-service chili bar, stock plenty of ice cold beer and invite a few friends over and you’ve got yourself a party. Go Irish! Go Bears!

Do you have any special recipes you make for football  weekends? What kind of chili do you prefer? Let us know in the comments section below.

Jambalaya!

Something you may not know about me: New Orleans is my favorite city.

Although I’ve never been lucky enough to live there, I try to get there as often as I can, especially during the city’s big Jazz and Heritage Festival in the spring. I just love the music, the European flavor of the French Quarter, the quirky neighborhoods, and especially the food.

My love for the Crescent City has crept onto numerous menus at restaurants where I have worked, sometimes for no reason other than I love the cuisine. Whenever I get lonesome for that town, I stop by one of my favorite Chicago restaurants, Heaven on Seven, a Creole and Cajun inspired joint that has some of the best food I’ve had anywhere outside Louisiana.

Digging around my refrigerator the other day, I noticed I had some leftover chicken, sausage and shrimp. Jambalaya, I immediately thought. With the Bears playing the Saints this weekend, what could be better than this all-time New Orleans favorite.

Jambalaya with Jalapeno Cornbread

Jambalaya with Jalapeno Cornbread

This recipe is simple, inexpensive and delicious. It’s a great way to use up odds and ends from your fridge or freezer. Chicken, Andouille sausage and shrimp are the traditional ingredients, but really you can make it with anything you have, including straight vegetarian.

You can cook it in your slow cooker, but I couldn’t wait that long so I cooked it up on the stove top. And I just had to serve it with some jalapeno cornbread.

Jambalaya

1 or 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts

1 or 2 Italian sausage links (or Andouille, if you can find it), cut into 1-2 inch peices

1/2 lb large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 cup white onion, diced

1 green pepper, seeds and ribs removed, diced

2 stalks celery, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 TBS all-purpose flour

2 TBS tomato paste

15 oz can of diced tomatoes

3/4 cup white rice (not instant, puh-lease!)

1 bay leaf

1/2 cup chicken broth

3/4 cup water

1 TBS Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning (usually just referred to as “Tony’s”) (You can substitute with Old Bay or any kind of Cajun or Creole seasoning)

EVOO

Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 375. Heat 1 TBS EVOO in cast iron skillet. When oil starts to smoke, add chicken and sausage, seasoning with S&P. Let brown, about 2 minutes, then turn and season and brown the other side a minute, then throw the whole pan in the oven to finish cooking, about 7 minutes. Remove and set aside for later.

2. In large pot, heat 1 TBS EVOO. When oil starts to smoke, add onion, green pepper, celery and bay leaf. Sweat until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for about another 1-2 minutes, stirring frequently so it doesn’t burn. Add the chicken stock, water, Tony’s, diced chicken and sausage and stir. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer, cover and cook until rice is done, about 25 minutes.

3. Combine the shrimp with 1 TBS of EVOO and sprinkle with 1 tsp Tony’s. Refrigerate to let flavors marinate. Just before service, in hot saute pan, drizzle a little EVOO. When oil starts to smoke, add shrimp. Saute until done, about 3-4 minutes, flipping once or twice.

To plate, use a kitchen spoon to build a big pile of jambalaya in the center of a pasta bowl. Arrange the shrimp around the pile. Garnish with parsley sprig or chopped parsley.

Jalapeno Cornbread

Jalapeno Cornbread

Jalapeno Cornbread

1 cup All Purpose Flour

2 TBS sugar

TBS baking powder

½ tsp salt

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup milk

2 eggs, beaten

¼ cup vegetable oil

3-4 jalapenos, ribs and seeds removed, diced

Preheat oven to 425F. Grease your cast iron skillet with pan spray and throw it in the oven.

1. While the oven is warming, combine milk, eggs and oil in a bowl. In another bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cornmeal. Slowly stir liquid mixture into powder mixture just until batter is wet. Fold in jalapenos, then use potholders to remove skillet from oven and pour batter into skillet.

2. Cook for about 25 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.

This recipe can also be made in a 9”x9” baking dish that has been sprayed with cooking spray.

Do you love New Orleans cooking as much as I do? What are your favorite dishes? Let us know in the comments section below.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!