26 January 2008

This Week's Specials: Pasta Casseroles

I've roasted enough hotel-style turkey breasts by now that I could probably do it half asleep. The leftovers made sandwiches for lunch and provided the meat for "Chicken and Orzo Bake" from Vollstedt's The Big Book of Casseroles. I did tweak the recipe a bit by mixing the green/spring onions (scallions) into the casserole rather than sprinkling them on as a garnish afterwards. I also threw in some leftover peas, because more vegetables is almost always better. How did it taste? Pretty good. The nonfat Greek yoghurt and splash of wine gave the dish an unexpected tang, the tarragon provided a nice licorice note, and the red bell pepper yielded just a hint of sweetness.

Turkey and Orzo Bake

This will be the third consecutive week of Operation: Make Three Suppers. So far, so good. Happily. I seem to be spending about same amount of money on groceries and do not feel I am spending much more extra time in the kitchen than before. It all seems to be a matter of realistic planning.

This week, I'm making two low fat recipes from Maryana Vollstedt's The Big Book of Casseroles ("Vegetables & Noodles with Good Creamy Sauce" and "Turkey-Zucchini Casserole") and "Tex-Mex Pork Chops" from Taste of Home Annual Recipes, 2008. I think The Husband is doing frozen pizza for Thursday (last week he did steak and baked potatoes).

Last week's recipes turned out pretty well ...

"Do-Ahead Ravioli-Sausage Lasagna"

I assembled the "Do-Ahead Ravioli-Sausage Lasagna" from Betty Crocker Christmas Cookbook (recipe is also online) when I got up in the morning. That evening, I popped it in the oven and, 1.25 hours and a can of low sodium green beans later, supper was ready. I substituted Boca Meatless Ground Burger for the ground meat, because I had it on hand, it helped reduce the overall amount of fat in the dish, and it also meant I didn't have to take the time to brown anything. I used reduced fat mozzarella shreddies and the lowest sodium tomato sauce I could find (completely forgetting about the bags of sauce in the basement freezer). The Husband quite liked this casserole -- it tasted and looked surprisingly like "real" lasagna and I plan on making it again. Next time, I might mix some frozen spinach (thawed and squeezed dry) in with the middle sauce layer, because more vegetables is almost always better.

Grandma's Lokshun Pudding (Lukshen Kugel)

This time of year always brings on a powerful craving for my grandma's noodle pudding. The cold and the dark and the constant grindgrindgrind of life make me hunger for dishes rich in dairy, eggs, and noodles. If not grandma's noodle pudding, then my cheese lasagna. And if not lasagna, then my mom's meatball stroganoff over egg noodles.

Lukshen Kugel

(Mind you, since my grandma discovered sugar and egg substitutes as well as fat-free everything, her noodle pudding is nothing like what it used to be. Edible, yes. Go-to January comfort food, no).

Of course, I don't even have my grandmother's recipe, because there doesn't appear to be one. She learned to make "Lokshun Pudding" from her mother who learned it from her "nice Jewish landlady" many decades ago back in Brooklyn. When my grandmother talks about it, her recipe seems very "some of this" and "some of that" with no real measurements or even, sometimes it seems, set ingredients.

This works for my grandma, but it doesn't work for me. Happily, when I brought home Gil Marks's Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World (Wiley, 2004), I found it contained a recipe for "Ashkenazi Sweet Noodle Pudding" (Luskhen Kugel) which sounded close enough to my grandma's pudding to be worth making.

Marks's recipe has five variations (and variations within those variations, even). Eventually, I'd like to try them all (especially the more savory "Galician Salt-and-Pepper Noodle Pudding"), but I stuck with "Sweet Noodle-Cheese Kugel (Zeesih Lukshen un Kaese Kugel)" for my first attempt as it seemed like it would be most like my grandma's. This meant:
  • I added 1 pound of Friendship brand farmer cheese, and 16 oz of reduced fat Breakstone brand sour cream to the standard recipe.
  • I used medium egg noodles rather than fine, because medium looked like the one's grandma used.
  • Given the choice between cinnamon and orange marmalade, I went with cinnamon.
  • I used (optional) ¾ cup golden raisins rather than (optional) chopped apricots.
  • I used 2/3 cup sugar (the least amount called for).
Even though it was not traditional, I also threw in an (optional) ¾ cup of chopped pecans.

Because my 13x9 baking dish was already in use, I split the recipe between two 8x8 pans. This meant that the number of servings had to change when I calculated out the nutritional values. Rather than getting 9 servings, I anticipated 12 (6 from each 8x8). Regardless of how you cut it, this is not an every day dish. Eating it every day could probably kill you. Weight Watchers-wise, this lovely kugel works out to 9 points per serving.

Is it worth it? Yes. Oh, yes. It may not quite be grandma's noodle pudding, but it is definitely tasty -- all creamy, cinnamon-y, and egg-y with plumped-up raisin-y goodness. Yum.

21 January 2008

Adventures With Wheat Berries

I brought home Gil Marks's Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World (Wiley, 2004) from the library last week and have been paging through it, deep in food porn fantasies, for days now.

There are so many dishes I want to try. Most especially, the recipe for "Ashkenazic Sweet Noodle Pudding" (Lukshen Kugel), because it sounds a lot like my grandma's noodle pudding -- a seldom made but much longed for dish of my childhood which I always find myself craving this time of year. I'd also like to make
  • "Central European Cabbage Strudel" 
  • "Greek Barley Soup"
  • "Sephardic Cauliflower in Tomato Sauce" 
What I have made is "Middle Eastern Wheat Berry Stew" and, well, making it was a bit of an adventure! You should know that I had never cooked with wheat berries before. For the past year or so, I've been trying to add "new" grains to my diet so that where we might have once had noodles or white rice with dinner, we have barley casserole or bulgur pilaf. Wheat berries, when I found the recipe for this stew, seemed like a logical next step. My wheat berries are from the health food store -- "Shiloh Farms Organic Soft Wheat."

Marks's recipe comes with variations -- I used sweet potatoes, but could have used white. I omitted the eggs, but did use the cinnamon.

When I started cooking the stew, I was following the stove top instructions. After two hours of cooking, though, my wheat berries were nowhere near "very tender" nor did they "have a consistency that is neither dry nor very soupy." I added more liquid (vegetable broth instead of water this time, because I feared the stew would be bland otherwise) and let it cook for another hour. And another hour. And another. Finally, I gave up. I dumped the stew and more vegetable broth into a covered casserole and let the whole thing bake overnight in the (225°) oven.

This stew cooked for 12 hours and, in the end, the texture of the wheat berries in the finished dish is exactly as called for and the whole things tastes rather nice. Interestingly, the onions and sweet potatoes completely dissolved into the stew.

I ended up with about two quarts of the stuff and, luckily it tastes good, because I'm going to be eating it for a while. I don't know if it can be frozen. I suspect the wheat berries would get softer if they were frozen and thawed, but that might not be a bad thing. The stew might just be more like a porridge.

Overall, I do not regret making "Middle Eastern Wheat Berry Stew." I will probably even make it again, using eggs, because baked whole eggs sounds fascinating. And delicious.

18 January 2008

Back to the Menu Board

For a while there, I was pretty good at planning out weekly menus and following through with them. Somewhere along the way, I fell out of the habit and now, too often, we are scrambling for dinner when we are hungry and tired and easily swayed by all that is cheesy, fatty, or convenient.

No more, I say. Last weekend I resolved that, this year, I will prepare at least three homecooked suppers per week (I work two nights a week and weekends are always very up in the air, anyway). The Husband shall provide one supper per week and it may be whatever he wants -- even takeout -- just as long as I don't have to think about it.

So how is it going? Not bad. I managed to make three suppers with minimal fuss or headache this week. (Many people, of course, manage to put supper on the table every night and I salute them).

First Supper: Baked boneless skinless chicken thighs (brushed with olive oil, liberally sprinkled with McCormick Salt Free Garlic & Herb Seasoning, and baked at 375 for 30 minutes -- I prepped them the evening before and The Husband stuck them in the oven at 5:45) with "steam in the bag" whole green beans and a microwavable rice pack.

Second Supper: A tweaked version of Taste of Home's "Pasta Crab Casserole." I used one 14 oz pkg of surimi (rather than two 8 oz pkgs) chopped into thumbnail sized pieces. I also boosted the amount of veggies by adding diced carrots and sliced baby zucchini in with the onions, peppers, and mushrooms. Because I wanted a creamier casserole, I threw in a can of low fat lower sodium cream of mushroom soup with the sour cream. I sprinkled shredded Parmesan on top, instead of cheddar, because that's what I had on hand.

The first casserole baked up quite tasty and it pleases me to know there's another supper in the freezer. As with First Supper, I put this all together the night before and The Husband popped it in the oven while I was on my way home.

Third Supper: "Roasted Pork Tenderloin and Vegetables" from Betty Crocker magazine (January 2006 "Simple Winter Meals"). An easy recipe -- just a pork tenderloin rubbed with oil and garlic pepper blend (McCormick Salt Free Garlic & Herb Seasoning) placed in a pan with cut up potatoes, zucchini, and frozen pearl onions drizzled with some melted butter and dried thyme. It came out pretty well and will be repeated. The Husband especially liked how the baby zucchini came out -- kind-of nutty and sweet.

And now on to next week ...

I'm thinking roast turkey breast (Monday is a holiday), then "Chicken and Orzo Bake" (made with leftover turkey) from Vollstedt's The Big Book of Casseroles (Chronicle Books, 2000), and "Do-Ahead Ravioli-Sausage Lasagna" (using Boca Crumbles instead of pork sausage) from Betty Crocker Christmas Cookbook (Wiley, 2006).

08 January 2008

A Healthy Start + A Yearning for Bacon = Life as Usual

I am a sucker for pretty cookbooks. For example, my fingers started itching the moment I saw Pillsbury Good for You: Fast and Healthy Family Favorites (Wiley, 2006) with its perky orange spine in amongst the new book shelves. Yes, the perky orange spine with the cheery yellow lemon clip art got me all fired up – the lemon-chicken cover art just sealed my fate. It looked like food I could make and the cookbook “packaging” suggested this was a low-key cookbook in which I would find recipes which wouldn’t push the limits of my culinary skill set or pantry and, yet, which would also be healthy and interesting. Yes, I fell for slick packaging. Do I regret it? Not in the least.

Over the last six weeks, I have made five recipes from this cookbook and have been very pleased with the results. All the recipes I’ve made have been for supper -- completely ignoring the breakfast and grilling chapters. It’s not that those recipes didn’t sound appealing; it’s just that I am not a breakfast person at breakfast time and now is not the season for grilling. These have all been tasty suppers with a definite hearty stick-to-it-tiveness about them which I wasn’t quite expecting from a “healthy” cookbook. I had to keep reminding myself that this isn’t a diet cookbook. It’s not for people trying to loose weight -- it’s for those who wish to make better food choices.

(This did not stop me, however, from emitting the occasional “Boo-yah!” as I converted nutritional information into Weight Watchers Points).

Anyway, it’s the New Year -- don’t we all want to be making better nutritional choices? The regret a quarter of a dish of crab dip and half dozen bacon wrapped scallops (plus a boatload of cheese and crackers) has inspired suggest I do.

(Yeah. Regret I don’t have any bacon in the house right now)

“Beef with Burgundy Mushrooms” pg 90
Pan fried steak over no-egg egg noodles and topped with mushroom gravy ... and what a gravy! The gravy is very easy -- sauté mushrooms over medium-high then stir in a slurry made from condensed French onion soup, Burgundy, cornstarch, tomato paste, basil oregano, and garlic and keep stirring until it all thickens. I don't know if I'll make the steak part of this recipe again, but I'm jotting down the gravy part of the recipe for when we do roast beef and pudding, again.

“Colorful Veggie & Tortilla Dinner” pg 110
Brown rice, vegetables, and beans mixed with spices and stewed tomatoes and tortillas with fat-free sour cream, cilantro and diced tomatoes. It was a very fast and hearty dinner which made excellent lunches the next day. I love this recipe, but the Points value scares me -- I don't know why it so high as the dish is all vegetables, legumes, and fat-free ingredients. Regardless, we will be eating is again as it is both delicious and requires no extra shopping.

“Footlong Pizza” pg 178
Easy -- cut a loaf of French bread in half and smear with (light) garlic-and-herb spreadable cheese. Arrange sliced mushrooms, bell pepper, zucchini, and olives on top. Spray with cooking spray. Sprinkle with Italian-type herbs. Bake. Sprinkle with shredded low-fat mozzarella. Bake until done. We ate this for dinner with tomato soup and it was pretty good, but it's not really pizza.

“Tomato-Basil Linguine with Chicken” pg 62
Total convenience recipe -- cubed chicken breast sautéd with garlic and then mixed with Italian-style canned diced tomatoes and basil and served over heated refrigerated linguine. Pretty good, but you want to be generous with the seasonings and some sliced mushrooms might make it better.

“Tex-Mex Pasta” pg 58
This is a "Super Express" recipe which means it is ready in 20 minutes or less and it was. But, then, it's just cooked pasta shells, cut up canned whole tomatoes (why call for whole tomatoes if you're then going to cut them up? why not used canned diced tomatoes to begin with?), canned beans, canned chopped green chiles, frozen corn, shredded reduced-fat Monterey Jack, and Mexican Seasoning (I blended together cumin, oregano, cinnamon, red pepper, and garlic). It's simple enough to be a beginner recipe and tasty enough to be served again. You can probably use whatever kinds of beans you like -- I used black, but pinto might be nice.

I'll be returning this cookbook to the library tomorrow, but I'll definitely be borrowing it again.