Sunday, February 26, 2012

Creamy Tomato Pasta Bake

Every so often, I am completely thrown by how easy it can be to make an amazing dish.  If you know just a few basic cooking points, it's a snap to build off of things you've eaten in restaurants or read about online and create something of your very own.  That's what happened to me this weekend.  Using a simple recipe for a roux from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I whipped up a creamy sauce and added some grated cheese that I just happened to have in my refrigerator.  It needed a little something else, so I opened a can of crushed tomatoes from my pantry and added it by 1/3-cups until I was satisfied with the taste.  I had read a recipe earlier this week about a baked pasta dish from Giada DeLaurentiis, and thought that the added texture of baked, crunchy noodles would be a nice change from my traditional pasta-sauce dinner combination.  Throwing all of those ideas together resulted in this creamy, cheesy, and very easy pasta bake!  And the whole dish began with reading a few recipes online and deciding to make a béchamel sauce.  It can really be that easy!

Tomato Cream Pasta Bake
serves 4

2 tbls unsalted butter
3 tbls flour
2 cups milk
1/3 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan, plus another handful for topping
2/3 cup canned crushed tomato
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 pound short pasta noodles (I used fusilli noodles)
1/4 cup chopped basil
salt & pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. 

In a small pan, heat the milk until it just starts to boil.  Remove from heat. 

In a larger pan, cook the pasta according to the package directions, but cook it just shy of completely cooked.  The pasta will continue cooking in the oven.  While the water is boiling/pasta is cooking, start to cook the sauce. 

In a large sauce pan over medium heat, melt the butter.  Sprinkle the flour over the melted butter and whisk to combine and cook the flour.  Once the flour and butter has combined into a paste (a roux), remove the pan from heat and add the milk.  Whisk continuously until the rue has dissolved into the milk, then put the sauce pan back under medium heat and whisk occasionally until the sauce just starts to boil.  (Now you've made a béchamel sauce - fancy!)  Add the cheeses, crushed tomatoes, and garlic powder, to the sauce.  Whisk to combine.  Taste and add salt & pepper as needed. 

Add the cooked pasta to the tomato cheese sauce.  Pour the pasta into a shallow 9x9-inch baking dish and top with a handful of Parmesan cheese.  Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the top has some crunch and is browned.  Top with the chopped basil.  Serve and enjoy!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Hearty Minestrone Soup

According to the news reports, snow is creeping into our neighborhoods, ready to surprise unsuspecting Minnesotans who thought we'd beat this year's winter. I have a pretty good memory when it comes to late-occurring winters though, since my birthday is in March! I recall a few times growing up when my birthday parties happened in snowy weather, so I know there's always the possibility for more winter. Because our Minnesota winter might be just around the corner, I thought I would post a recipe for a hearty Minestrone soup. It's tasty and flavorful -- perfect for a surprise blast of winter!

Minestrone Soup
serves 4

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, minced fine
2 celery stalks, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 15-oz can white beans
2 carrots, peeled & diced
1 cup green beans, trimmed and chopped into one-inch pieces
1 15-oz can chopped tomatoes
1 15-oz can kidney beans
1 quart of vegetable stock
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 parmesan rind (available at most markets)
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 cup short pasta (I used elbow macaroni)

Heat the olive oil in a large Dutch oven. Add the onion, celery, and garlic, and sauté for about 5 minutes. Add the can of white beans and using a potato masher, mash up most of the beans. This will thicken the base of the soup.

Add the carrots, green beans, tomatoes, kidney beans, stock, oregano, parmesan rind, salt & pepper, and veggie stock. Bring to a boil then reduce the heat, cover, and let simmer for 20 minutes. Uncover and add in the dried pasta. Once the pasta has cooked, remove from heat and serve. Top each bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and freshly cut basil. Enjoy!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Restaurant Ruminations :: Cat Man Do

This week has been less about cooking and more about dining out.  Sometimes that just happens -- who am I to complain?!  One evening a few of my college friends and I headed out to Cat Man Do restaurant on Grand Avenue in St. Paul.  I was looking forward to trying out this place because I run in the area almost weekly.  It physically hurts me to smell all of the deliciousness as I run by and then have to run away from it.  The owners of Cat Man Do are formally of Everest on Grand but they decided to leave Everest, branching out to form another restaurant showcasing the aromatic and flavorful Nepali food that I love so much. 

One of the reason I love doing restaurant reviews is that I feel justified in ordering a multi-course meal.  So this time, I started out with a serving of a samosa chat. 

The samosa chat is essentially a crushed samosa, topped with tomato, onion, and a cold yogurt.  Samosas alone are quite wonderful, and these were beautifully made with delicious dough.  But adding the veggies on top and contrasting the warm samosa with the chilled yogurt sauce?  Yum!  The yogurt sauce did have the effect of dimming down the spice level a bit, but the contrast in temperature was enough of a surprise that I didn't miss the spice element as much.  Then for my main course, I decided to try the vegetarian chow chow.

Amazing!  My friend and I decided that it was like ramen for grown ups because the noodles were so similar in shape to your traditional, cup-o-noodle ramen.  But these noodles were pan fried for some extra texture and flavor, then sauteed with a selection of vegetables.  I ordered medium-level spice, so the chow chow had a bit of a kick!  But it was not at all overwhelming and the spiciness seemed to melt into the background of the dish, giving it some heat and flavor.  The accompanying vegetables were also tasty, but I could have used a tad more variety, especially as a vegetarian menu option.

I wanted desperately to save some of these noodles so I could enjoy them again for lunch the next day, but with each bite, my willpower dissolved a bit more and eventually the chow chow was completely devoured.  I was envious of my friends' take-out boxes, but I suppose this means I have to go back to Cat Man Do and order the chow chow again.  Rough life!

Restaurant Details
Cat Man Do
1659 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, 55105
(651) 528-7575

Regular Hours:
Sunday-Thursday: 11:00am - 9:00pm
Friday - Saturday: 11:00am - 10:00pm
Happy Hour:
Monday - Friday: 2:00 - 6:00pm
Lunch Buffet Hours:
Monday - Friday: 11:00am - 2:00pm

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Friends on Food

Not everything that you cook is going to be a complete success.  Sometimes a recipe just isn't good, or you read it wrong, or the ingredients you buy are not very tasty.  Other times you try something new and it is just a complete failure.  It happens to me with some amount of regularity, most recently, at Thanksgiving dinner.  I made a pumpkin pie completely from scratch, but my pumpkin did not completely puree.  So the pie filling was stringy and chewy.  And gross.  Luckily, my aunt had brought along a French silk pie from Baker's Square, so the dinner was saved!  One of my favorite episodes of Friends is "The One Where Ross Got High," and it features a completely disastrous Thanksgiving dessert.  I'd like to think that I would never confuse an English trifle and a shepherd's pie, but you really never know!

Season 6 - The One Where Ross Got High

Ross: That tastes like feet!
Joey: I like it!
Ross: Are you kidding?
Joey: What's not to like?  Custard?  Good.  Jam?  Good.  Meat?  Gooooooood.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tostadas with Cilantro Lime Rice & Fresh Salsa

Valentine's Day can be a bit of a buzz kill for single women like myself.  I actually forgot it was Valentine's Day yesterday, and remembered only when I saw flowers, balloons, and conversation hearts on desks at work!  I have no problem with the concept of Valentine's Day and I'm certainly not a Valentine's Day hater.  But I was happy that I didn't have to worry about buying anything special or doing anything outlandishly romantic yesterday!  Instead, I thought to myself, how would I most like to celebrate a day of love?  Umm, by eating delicious food.  Obviously.  So I put together a meal with some of my favorites: fried tortillas, fresh salsa, and Chipotle-inspired rice.  I'll refrain from telling you just how many tostadas I ate (that's my Valentine's Day secret), but a crunchy tortilla topped with heirloom tomato salsa and cilantro-lime rice was hard to resist.  In fact, it was love at first sight. 

Tostadas with Cilantro Lime Rice & Fresh Salsa
serves 2-3, with 1 cup of extra salsa for later!

for cilantro lime rice
3/4 cup long-grain white rice
1 1/2 cups vegetable stock
1 tbls butter
1 cup cilantro leaves, washed and chopped
Juice from 1/2 of a lime

for fresh salsa
2 large tomatoes, heirloom if available, chopped
1/2 large red onion, diced
1 Serrano chili, seeded and finely diced
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon coarse salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 - 1 cup freshly chopped cilantro
Juice from 1 lime

for tostadas
1 package corn tortillas
1 15-ounce can black beans
1-2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil

Cook the rice in the vegetable stock according to the package directions.  Once the rice has cooked, stir in the butter, lime juice, and cilantro. 

While the rice is cooking, mix together all of the ingredients for the salsa in a large bowl.  Taste and adjust for seasonings.  Keep in the refrigerator until you are ready to assemble the tostadas.

Empty the entire can of beans into a small saucepan and heat over low heat, stirring as needed until the beans are warmed through.  Either keep on low heat or turn the heat off, depending on how far along your rice is in the cooking process.

When the rice has finished cooking and the beans are heated through, heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet until hot.  Place one tortilla in the skillet and fry for about 30 seconds.  Then flip, and fry that side for another 30 seconds, or until the tortilla is crisp.  Place the tortilla on a dinner plate lined with paper towels.  Continue frying tortillas until you have enough for dinner (think about 2-3 tostadas per person). 

Take one of the crisp tortillas and top it with a spoonful of the cilantro rice.  Top the rice with a spoonful of black beans (drained!) and top all of that off with the fresh salsa.  Serve and enjoy!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Potato & Corn Chowder with Old Bay Croutons

As part of this year's Super Bowl preparation, I was asked by CBS Minnesota to come up with New York and New England themed recipes.  I think the pretzel bites overshadowed the chowder recipe, which was a shame because this chowder is SO good!  The texture turned out perfectly -- no rogue, crunchy onion pieces -- and the flavor was rich but still mellow.  But I will tell you that the Old Bay Croutons were the hit of this chowder.  I cooked up a fair few, but only two of them lasted until I was ready to eat the soup.  The rest were eaten in a pre-dinner snacking frenzy.  If they do make it to your soup, more power to you!

Potato & Corn Chowder with Old Bay Croutons
adapted from Epicurious
serves 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cups of vegetable stock
1 yellow onion, diced
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and diced
½ cup frozen corn
2 cups half and half
1 tablespoon dry white wine
½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
Salt & pepper to taste

1 baguette, diced into 1-inch cubes
1-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-3 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.  In a large soup pot, melt the butter over medium heat.  Once melted, add the onion and cook until translucent and tender, about 5-7 minutes.  Add the flour and cook over low heat, stirring, for another 2 minutes.

Whisk in the vegetable stock, bring to a simmer and cook for 5 minutes.  Add the thyme and 1 teaspoon of Old Bay seasoning.  Add the diced potatoes and simmer partially covered until the potatoes are tender.

Once the potatoes are tender, add the half & half and the frozen corn.  Simmer together for another few minutes.  Stir in the wine and Worcestershire sauce, taste and adjust salt & pepper.

Meanwhile, toss the cubed bread, olive oil, and Old Bay seasoning.  Arrange the bread cubes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper in a single layer.  Bake until the bread is crisp but still has some give, about 5-8 minutes.  Serve the chowder in small bowls and top each serving with Old Bay croutons. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Pretzel Bites with Spicy Cheese Dip

So the Giants took home the trophy after round two of their match-up with the Patriots during this Sunday's Super Bowl.  Tough luck for Tom Brady (right, like he has such a hard life....), but I was cheering for the Giants this year and was happy when they got it done.  I love the entirety of football season for so many reasons.  I love lounging in sweatpants on Sunday, glued to the TV.  I love fantasy football.  And I LOVE football party snacks! 

For this year's Super Bowl, I was asked to come up two party recipes for CBS Minnesota, one to represent the Giants and one for the Patriots.  I heard from many of my friends that they made and loved the New York pretzel bites with cheese sauce, and I am excited to be able to share it here.  (To find out when my recipes will be posted on the WCCO website, "like" my blog on Facebook!)  These pretzel bites are easy to make and perfect for any occasion.  You can also make them into eight larger pretzels. 

Pretzel Bites with Spicy Cheese Dip
adapted from Alton Brown
makes about 100 small pretzels

for pretzels:
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 packet active dry yeast
1 tbls sugar
2 tsp salt
4 1/2 cups flour
2 tbls unsalted butter, melted
10 cups water
2/3 cup baking soda
1 egg lightly beaten with 1 tbls water
coarse salt or pretzel salt
cooking spray

for cheese dip:
2 tbls butter
2 tbls all-purpose flour
2 cups half & half
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1 jalapeno, seeded & chopped
1/2 - 1 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp paprika

for pretzels:
In a large bowl, combine the lukewarm water, yeast, sugar, and salt.  Wait until the yeast mixture starts to foam, about 5 minutes.  Then add the flour and melted butter and stir to combine as best you can.  The dough will be firm, so use some muscle.  Turn the dough out onto a flat surface and knead it until smooth, about 5 minutes.  Spray the bowl lightly with cooking spray, then return the dough to the bowl and cover with a kitchen towel.  Place in a warm spot in your kitchen and let the dough rise for about an hour. 

Cover two baking sheets with parchment paper, and spray the paper lightly with cooking spray.   

In a large pot, combine the 10 cups of water and baking soda.  Heat on high – you’ll need the water to be at a boil once you’re done working with the dough.  Once the dough has risen, combine the 10 cups of water and baking soda in a large pot.  Heat on high, and then turn back to the dough.  Punch it down and divide it into 8 equal pieces (a pizza cutter works well for this).  Roll out each piece into an 18-inch rope.  Then using the pizza cutter, cut each rope into 1-inch squares of dough.

Once your water mixture has come to a boil add the dough pieces in batches, about 12-14 per batch, and leave them in the boiling water for about 15 seconds.  Fish them out using a slotted spoon and place on the baking sheets lined with parchment.  Continue until all of the dough pieces have been in the baking-soda bath. 

Arrange the dough on the pans so there is space between each piece.  Using a pastry brush, brush each dough bite with the egg wash.  Then sprinkle the dough with salt to your liking.  Bake the pretzel bites for about 14 minutes.  Let cool for about five minutes before serving.

for cheese dip:
In the meantime, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a small sauce pan over medium heat.  Add the 2 tablespoons of flour and whisk to combine for about 1-2 minutes.  Remove the pan from heat and slowly whisk in the half and half.  Return the pan to medium-low heat and slowly add the cheese, jalapeño, and spices, whisking in a figure-8 pattern.  Once the cheese has just melted, remove from heat. 

Keep the cheese sauce in a microwave-safe container so it can be reheated as needed.  Serve alongside the pretzel bites. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Curried Wild Rice & Lentils

I love cooking with friends.  I have a great group of friends who share my passion for food and I love it when we can all get together to cook up a storm, enjoy a bottle of wine, and catch up.  A couple of years back, three of us would get together once a week and cook a brand new meal.  We would alternate hosting and menu selection and we rated all of the food in a journal.  The "Calorie Club" as we called it has been put on a bit of a hiatus as one of the founding members, Sarah, has since moved to Grand Rapids.  But whenever Leigh, Sarah, and I get together, we make sure to plan a Calorie Club meeting. 

We also love sharing new recipes and ideas with one another, and today's post is exactly that!  Sarah was in town from Grand Rapids recently, and she passed along some beautiful wild rice and a recipe for curried lentils and wild rice.  I've never had much success with wild rice, but this rice cooked up perfectly.  And it was a lighter-colored rice, so it looked gorgeous when paired with the brown lentils and curry powder.  So simple and so tasty!  The dinner came together in a snap and I enjoyed two generous helpings before I finally cut myself off.  But do be sure to garnish with the sauteed onions -- made such a difference.  Thank you Sarah for sharing this recipe and for letting me post it here!

Curried Wild Rice & Lentils
graciously shared by Sarah M.
serves 4

1/2 cup raw wild rice
1/2 cup lentils
2 tbls butter
1 large sweet onion, sliced thin
3 cups boiling water
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 tablespoons curry powder

Rinse the rice and lentils.  In a large sauce pan or dutch oven, heat the butter over medium heat.  Add the sliced onions and saute for about 3-4 minutes, or until the onions are soft and translucent.  Remove half of the onions and reserve for garnish. 

Add your lentils and rice to the pan and saute, stirring continuously for about 3 minutes.  Add the boiling water, salt, pepper, and curry powder.  Bring back up to a boil, then reduce heat and cover, simmering over very low heat for 30-35 minutes or until the rice and lentils are cooked.  Don't lift the cover or stir while cooking. 

Serve hot and garnish with your reserved sauteed onion. 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Pasta with Toasted Bread Crumbs

Last week I attended my first Minnesota Food Bloggers event at Heidi's restaurant in Minneapolis.  I was so excited to meet some of the people who write blogs that I draw inspiration and recipes from.  The Twin Cities has a lovely community of food eaters and writers, which makes absolute sense considering our extraordinary restaurant and food scene.  Heidi's graciously hosted this event and it was a treat to wander around the restaurant, see the behind-the-scenes work in the kitchen, and taste some of the delightful Heidi's fare.  I also tried some ginseng-infused whiskey.  Refreshing!  I met some wonderful people and I cannot wait for the next food blogger event.

tasty bites from heidi's
So finally this Friday I returned to my kitchen to prepare a lovely diner of .....wait for run pasta!  That's right internet friends.  I have started training for my fifth marathon.  I never thought I would see the day.  So much like this summer, I will be using the next four months of training to search out and cook new varieties of pasta dishes.  I get to expand my culinary horizons and carb load at the same time.  Loves it!  Tonight I made an insanely easy pasta dish of pasta with toasted bread crumbs.  The bread crumbs toast up and stick to the pasta spirals, making them crunchy and flavorful.  It's almost like a tasty sauce, but in bread-crumb form.  Carbs on carbs?  I'll take that for a training run pasta!

Pasta with Toasted Bread Crumbs
serves 2

1/2 pound of short pasta, like fusilli or bow tie
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup plain bread crumbs
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 cup of Parmesan cheese
salt & pepper to taste

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add in a handful of salt.  Cook the pasta in the salted water according to the package directions.

In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a large skillet (large enough to fit the pasta).  Keep the heat to medium, and add the bread crumbs, tossing to incorporate.  Once the bread crumbs have soaked up the oil, add the spices and continue to toss the bread crumb mixture so it does not burn.  If it starts to get dark, turn the heat off.  Taste the bread crumbs and add salt & pepper as needed.

When the pasta has cooked, use a slotted spoon and add the pasta to the bread crumb mixture.  Toss the pasta in the mixture until the pasta is coated.  Add a tablespoon of the pasta water if needed in order to make the bread crumbs stick to the pasta.  Top with the grated cheese and readjust seasonings.