Thursday, October 29, 2009

Liege Waffles

My Venture into Liege Waffles
Most Americans have heard of Belgian waffles but I suspect that many have never heard of Liege waffles. In reality, Liege waffles are more common in Belgium than Belgian waffles! These waffles became famous in the city of Liege and are very sweet and incredibly fattening. The dough is a modified brioche dough that normally uses yeast as a leavener instead of baking powder. Traditionally, these waffles contain pearl sugar that caramelizes during cooking – producing a wonderfully crisp and sweet waffle. They are a common street food and you normally get them wrapped in paper to make them easier to eat while walking. Trust me – you don't need butter and syrup on these babies!

I love these waffles. This recipe is not particularly authentic but it is pretty good. If you've never had Liege waffles, I think you will fall in love with this recipe. If you HAVE had Liege waffles, you may be somewhat disappointed because this recipe does not quite do them justice.

This recipe is an adaptation of GoodMorningBurger's Liege Waffle Recipe. No matter how much tweaking I did to the recipe, it never came out like the waffles I had in Belgium. I'm convinced that, even if I had a good recipe, I'd never be able to produce a good waffle because I don't have a proper waffle iron to bake them in.

That said, my mother's waffle iron does a reasonably good job. Her waffle iron is OLD. Really old. It's so old, I think it was forged when the Earth was still molten. It's heavy and gets nice and hot – and the temperature of the unit can be regulated. The picture of the waffle at the top was taken at my mother's house when I was still trying to tweak the recipe to make it less fattening. In that version, I reduced the butter content significantly – and they lost a lot of flavor and stuck unmercifully to the grates because of all of the sugar. In addition, without enough fat, they were also particularly blond in color. I guess a copious amount of butter is needed for this recipe. Oh, well. I tried to make it less fattening and it didn't work!

I have a fairly new waffle iron and it sucks. It is SO not worth the money I spent on it. It never gets hot enough and produces really limp and unevenly colored waffles. In fact, I think when I walk, my friction-prone thighs produce more heat than my stupid waffle iron. Trust me – if I ever needed to start a camp fire, the only thing I'd need to do is put a stick between my legs and walk a block in my old corduroys. The waffle on the right was cooked in my new waffle iron. As you can see in the picture, there are places where the sugar never fully melted. Not good. That's what happens when your waffle iron doesn't get hot enough to fully melt the sugar. Do you see how unevenly colored it is? Also not good. My mother's beastly waffle iron produces a better, more consistent product. I guess new is not always better!

Aaaah, Belgium. I think of it every time I make these waffles. My mom and sister love 'em and I think you will too. You can either fly to Belgium and eat some there or you can make this easy recipe. Either way, I hope you won't be disappointed. Enjoy – and happy waffle-making!

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Liege Waffles
(Printable Version)

1 package of yeast (1/4 oz)
1/3 cup lukewarm milk (about 105F)
2 cups flour
1 1/2 TBSP sugar
1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
12 TBSP butter, room temperature
1 cup pearl sugar (added just before cooking)

Add the yeast to the warm milk and allow it to proof for about 7 minutes. The milk will make the yeast clump up. Just whisk it vigorously and it'll be OK.

To a mixing bowl, add the flour, 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar, and salt and stir to combine. Add the yeast mixture to the flour and mix on low speed (using a paddle attachment) just until it is mixed in. Add eggs one at a time, allowing them to become incorporated after each addition. Add the butter, one tablespoon at a time until incorporated.

Cover the dough and allow it to rest in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in size. Punch down the dough and add the pearl sugar and stir to combine. Cover and allow the dough to rest for about 15 minutes. This final resting time allows the gluten in the dough to relax some before you have to spread it out in your waffle iron.

Heat your waffle iron. If you can control the temperature of your waffle iron, set it at 370F. When hot, spray the waffle iron (both the top and bottom grates) with some cooking spray and add some dough to the waffle iron. How much? I have no idea. I've never measured it. The amount to add depends on the size of your waffle maker anyway. Add some dough and try to spread it out as thinly as you can – which will be somewhat difficult. Using two forks to help spread the dough helps a lot. Work quickly and then close the lid. With all of the sugar in these, they can burn easily so be sure to watch the waffles when you cook them. When the waffles are nice and brown, remove them from the waffle iron. Be careful – the sugar gets really hot and makes the waffles prone to sticking. They should be nice and crispy. No need to add butter or syrup. In Belgium, liege waffles are a common street food. They are wrapped in a paper napkin and people eat them on-the-go.

Notes: Don't want to go through all of the trouble of getting pearl sugar? Buy some sugar cubes instead. Use a sharp knife to cut the sugar cubes in half then cut each half into four pieces. Don't get the pieces too big or too small or you will affect the texture of the dough.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Nacho Cheesy Chili

My Venture into Chili

I love to make chili during the fall. This particular recipe is easy-to-make and tastes great, too – and it's even better the next day. Trust me – you and your family will gobble this up!

I live in an apartment building with lots of 20-something-year olds. As you know from a recent post, I have an interesting array of eclectic neighbors. A particularly odd pair live down the hall from me and I often run into them on the elevator. They're an attractive couple and, of course, have perfect bodies, immaculately coifed hair, and wear the latest fashions. The guy tends to be quiet and on the pensive side. She, on the other hand, is loud, obnoxious, and dumber than a box of navel lint. I have no idea what they see in each other because they seemingly have nothing in common except being good-looking. I have no idea what their names are but I call them Abercrombie and Fitch because he could be a catalog model and she can be a fitch…a real fitch.

Fitch has the annoying habit of talking on her cell phone as we're riding up the elevator. The only thing more annoying than that is when I hear guys loudly talking on their cell phones while they're sitting on the toilet in public restrooms. That's just WRONG! Men are pigs. I assure you, women would NEVER do something like that.

Anyway, one day while Fitch and I were waiting for the elevator, she was talking to a friend on her cell phone. As the elevator door opened, she was telling her friend that, no matter how much she ate, she could never gain weight. She'd eat and eat and eat and wouldn't gain a pound. Apparently, she eats nothing but fast food and potato chips and is the same weight she was three years ago. Of course, upon hearing this, I wanted to break the skinny, little thing in half and stuff her inside her clutch purse. Suddenly, it dawned on her that she shouldn't be talking about how rough it is to never gain weight when she was sharing the elevator with me, my big patootie, extra chin, and thunder thighs. She quickly said to her friend "OH! I better stop talking about this.." and then turned her back to me and quietly said "…because I'm in the elevator with a [whispering] F-A-T guy." Sigh. You know, even without super-hero powers or a spandex unitard with matching cape, I could figure out what she was spelling. Without missing a beat, I turned my head and gave her the evil eye – regretting later I didn't give her the evil finger instead. I'm sure she thought that I was famished since I hadn't had eaten anything since we boarded the elevator on the 1st floor and my piercing stare probably made me look like a hungry wildebeest eyeballing a bleached-blond pork chop wearing a white sun dress and pink espadrilles. Fitch.

On another occasion, Fitch and I were waiting for the elevator. As is customary, she was gabbing on her cell phone with a friend. I have to tell you, the sound of her voice gets on my last good nerve. It's as pleasant to listen to as to two feral cats during mating season. The elevator door opened and we got in and I was forced to listen to her claw through a conversation that went something like this:

"…and I got it for 75% off and Heather was like 'NO WAY!' and I was like 'WAY!', and she was like 'NO WAY!' and I was like 'WAY!' and she was like 'NO WAY!' and I was like 'WAY'!"

I PRAYED for the elevator cable to snap. It was like listening to a record that got stuck and was repeating the same loop over and over again. I wanted to smack her upside the head to try to see if that would unstick her. I have no idea what she got 75% off of but I'm guessing it wasn't a Mensa membership.

I'm very fortunate to work in an environment where I get to meet people from many different countries. One time, we had a visitor from Nepal who brought me a gift. The gift was given to me in a large shopping bag that said "KATHMANDU, NEPAL" on the side of the bag. Abercrombie, Fitch, and I were on the elevator and she noticed the shopping bag that I was carrying home. The conversation went something like this:

FITCH: Oh my gaaaaawd! [Pointing at the bag] I think I've shopped at Kathmandu before. It's in Kansas City, right?
VINCE: Uh, no. Kathmandu is the capital of Nepal.
ABERCROMBIE: [Long sigh]
FITCH: Oooohhh. Well, I thought Kathmandu was one of those made-up places. You know, like Timbuktu.
VINCE: Timbuktu is a real place. It's in Africa.
ABERCROMBIE: [To Fitch] Oh, geez. Will you just stop while you're still ahead?! [The doors opened and they started to walk out.]
FITCH: Well, excuse me! Apparently, you have to have a degree in Geology to ride this elevator!

What does all of this have to do with my chili recipe? Well today, I saw Fitch on the elevator when I was carrying up the ingredients to make chili and she was wearing a tight, pink t-shirt that said "It's Really Chilly!" with two large, pink rhinestones where her…well, let's such say it was a tasteless t-shirt. I need to find a different place to live. Anyway, I hope you like this chili. Enjoy – and happy chili-making!

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Nacho Cheesy Chili

(Printable Version)

1 TBSP oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 1/4 lbs ground beef
1 1/4 tsp kosher salt (1/2 tsp table salt)
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 1/2 TBSP chili seasoning*
1/2 tsp cumin
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 can of tomatoes (sauce, diced, or pureed – they all work well)
1 1/2 TBSP tomato paste
2 cans chili beans (such as William's or Bush's)
2 1/2 cups V8 Juice**
1/3 cup finely crushed nacho-flavored tortilla chips such as Doritos***
1-4 oz can green chilis (optional)
1 or 2 jalapenos, minced (optional)
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper or to taste (optional)
1 cup EACH freshly grated parmesan Cheese and sharp cheddar cheese****
Additional salt and pepper
Extra Doritos at serving time
Freshly Grated Sharp Cheddar Cheese for topping

Heat a dutch oven over medium heat with 1 tablespoon of oil. Cook the onions for about 2 minutes or until they just begin to soften. Add the ground beef, 1 1/4 teaspoons of kosher salt, and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper. Cook until brown then drain. To the browned meat, add the chili seasoning, garlic, and tomato paste and cook for 2 minutes. Add the V8 Juice, chili beans, can of tomatoes, crushed Doritos, and any of the optional ingredients listed above. Do NOT add the cheeses yet. Stir, cover, and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to maintain a very gentle simmer (around medium-low). Simmer for 30 to 45 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the cheeses and stir to combine. Allow the cheese to melt for about a minute then stir again. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper as needed. It is highly likely you will need more salt. I add anywhere from 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of additional kosher salt (half that amount for table salt) but I'll let you decide how much to add. The chili should be rich and thick and the ground beef should be very tender. If it is too thick add a little water or V8 Juice.

To serve, ladle some chili into a bowl and top with some additional Doritos and freshly grated cheddar cheese.

* Chili Seasoning and chili powder are technically different things. Popular brands of chili seasoning include Williams and McCormick. Chili seasoning contains chili powder as the primary ingredient but also includes things like onion powder, garlic powder, etc. If you can't find chili seasoning, no biggie. Use chili powder instead.

** Why V8 Juice? V8 juice is made up of several pureed veggies including tomatoes, carrots, celery, and more. Plain tomato juice or canned tomato sauce does not have the same depth of flavor.

*** To make 1/3 cup of finely crushed Doritos, measure out 1 cup of Doritos – breaking each Dorito into a few pieces so they lay properly in the cup. If you have some Doritos left in the bottom of the bag that are already in small pieces, this is a great use for them. Dump the cup of Doritos into a resealable bag and use a rolling pin to finely crush the chips. After they are finely crushed, you'll have about 1/3 cup.

**** You really need to use freshly grated cheese in this instead of the stuff that comes pre-shredded. Pre-shredded cheeses contains stabilizers that can sometimes impede melting. For this reason, I highly recommend that you use freshly grated in this recipe.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Pulled Pork Fajitas

My Ven
tures into Pork Fajitas
Beef fajitas. Chicken fajitas. Fish fajitas. Vegetarian fajitas. Pork fajitas – I love 'em all! In restaurants, I especially love when they are brought to your table on those cast iron plates and everything is still sizzling away. The veggies and meat often have a little char on the edges. Oh, geez. I'm making myself hungry! In general, I enjoy ordering foods in restaurants that I get to play with. You know, like Chinese hot pot or Beijing duck. Or Korean bulgogi or galbi. With fajitas, I get to put some meat and veggies on a fresh tortilla with my choice of fixings.

Was I in the mood for pork fajitas when I made this? Not really. However, pork shoulder was on sale for US$1.29 a pound so that's all the incentive I needed. I wasn't in the mood for pork shoulder – that is until I smelled it baking. OOOHHH, MY! For HOURS, you have to endure the most incredible aroma coming from your stove. I couldn’t escape it. I tried to take my mind off of it by working on my computer. I couldn't concentrate. I tried watching a little TV. Mexican restaurant commercials filled the airways. My neighbor down the hall even smelled it and insisted on having some for dinner. This is not my inconsiderate neighbor who slams his apartment door every time he comes and goes. Or the neighbor who sounds like he's moving furniture at 2:00 a.m. when his girlfriend stays over. Or the chain smoker. Or the stoner. Or the cross-dresser. Or the cross-dressing, chain-smoking stoner. The guy who knocked on my door is the ONE guy who lives on my floor who seems boringly normal. He's probably a serial killer.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, yeah, yeah. Fajitas. I know it takes a while to make this dish but it is absolutely worth it. You'll have plenty of leftovers to share with the serial killers next door. Enjoy – and happy fajita-making!

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Pulled Pork Fajitas
(Printable Version)

7 lbs pork shoulder

Spice Rub:
1 1/2 TBSP onion powder
1 1/2 TBSP garlic powder
2 TBSP cumin
2 TBSP dried oregano, rubbed between your fingers
2 1/2 TBSP kosher salt (1 1/4 TBSP table salt)
2 1/2 tsp black pepper
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
3 TBSP white vinegar
6 TBSP olive oil (one that you like the taste of)

1 1/2 TBSP olive oil
1 large onion, sliced into half moons and rings separated
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/3" strips
3 cloves garlic, minced
About 1 tsp of the reserved spice rub
Juice of 1/2 a lime

Small flour tortillas, warmed per the package instructions
Optional Toppings: Sour cream, guacamole, cilantro, tomatoes, slices of limes, your favorite cheese, etc.

Day Before Serving: Trim the pork shoulder of some (but not all) of the fat. If desired, you may leave all of the fat on. With the fat side up, cut the pork into three pieces. Most pork shoulders have a bone on one end of the roast. This means that you will not be able to cut the shoulder into three even pieces – but that's OK. If your butcher has already removed the bone, great! Otherwise, leave the bone in. Trust me, the bone will easily fall out on its own when the pork is done cooking.

For the rub, mix all of the dry ingredients together. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the dry mixture for the veggies. It's easy to forget to reserve that tablespoon of dry rub so make every effort to remember.

To the remaining rub, add the vinegar and olive oil and mix well. Rub the mixture all over the meat – and I mean RUB IT IN. Get rough with that pork and let it know who's boss. Place the pork in a roasting pan (fat side up), cover, and refrigerate AT LEAST overnight. It's even better after marinating for 24 hours.

On the Day of Serving: Take the roasting pan out of the refrigerator and set it on the counter while the oven is preheating. Preheat the oven to 275F. Make sure the roasting pan is tightly covered in aluminum foil. Bake the pork for about 5 hours. Take the roasting pan out of the oven and increase the temperature to 375F. Remove the foil from the roasting pan and use a spoon to baste the pork with some of the drippings on the bottom of the pan. Bake, uncovered, another 45 minutes to allow the meat to brown.

Remove the pan from the oven, cover it with foil, and let it rest for at least 15 minutes. After the pork has rested, take it out of the roasting pan and pull the pork into bite-size pieces.

When the pork is resting, cut the onions, bell pepper, and garlic.

To prepare the veggies, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat with the olive oil or use some of the drippings from the bottom of the roasting pan. When hot, add the onions and cook for about 2 to 3 minutes or until they are starting to char. Add the bell pepper and cook another 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic, 1 tsp of the reserved dry spice mixture, and the juice of 1/2 a lime. Mix well and cook 1 minute.

To serve, add some of the pulled pork to a warmed tortilla. Add some of the veggies and your favorite toppings.

Notes: This tastes even BETTER the next day. You reserved enough of the dried spice mixture to make another 2 batches of veggies for leftovers. The next day, just make another batch of veggies, reheat the meat, and you have quick and easy leftovers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Roasted Vegetables

My Venture into Roasted Veggies
I haven't met a vegetable I didn't like. Well, maybe a couple. I love roasting vegetables in the fall when many squash and root vegetables are at their finest. To be honest, I don't make this dish the same way twice. I pick out whatever veggies look good that day, throw on some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, dried rosemary, salt, and pepper and let 'em roast away. Sometimes, I add cipollini onions, boiler onions, or shallots. Other times I throw in Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, garlic, eggplant, peas, corn, green beans, turnips, beets – whatever's in-season, sounds good, or is on sale. The important thing is for you to choose vegetables that you and your family like to eat.

Even after I stopped being a vegetarian, I fixed this dish all of the time because it is so good. Kids love it because the vegetables are sweeter when roasted. At your next dinner party, you can serve this as an appetizer, a side dish, or even as the main course.

One time when I was in Asia, I was eating lunch with my friend Manny in the Taipei Airport. At the time, I was a vegetarian so I opted for a salad since everything else on the menu appeared to contain meat in some form or another. Manny is not an adventurous eater and ordered a hamburger and fries. The waiter took our order and we gabbed up a storm while we awaited our food. Manny is from Rhode Island and has the best sense of humor. He's a great guy and I appreciate his straightforwardness – a characteristic not shared by many of us who live in the Midwest. During the conversation, Manny dryly asked in his pronounced East-Coast accent, "Vince, don't take dis da wrong way but how does a vegetawiun become so LAHGE?" His question cracked me up but it's a good question. Many vegetarians are emaciated, little things but that's not always true. When you think about it, vegetarian mammals tend to be large. Elephants, hippos, rhinos, horses, cows, and many other large animals eat primarily vegetarian diets -- and they ain't skinny! Being a vegetarian doesn't automatically guarantee that you're going to be a size 2 by Christmas. After all, you could be a vegetarian and still consume a ton of calories from french fries, donuts, cake, Doritos, candy, garlic bread, soda pop, etc. – all of which contain no meat but a lot of calories, fat, and carbs.

Whether you're an omnivore or vegetarian, young or old, thick or thin, you're going to love this wonderful dish. Enjoy –and happy roasting!

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Roasted Vegetables
(Printable Version)

Longer-Cooking Veggies
1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1" cubes
2 to 3 medium potatoes (preferable Yukon Gold or Red Bliss), peeled and cut into 3/4" chunks
1 cup or so of baby carrots (cut in half or leave whole)
1 pint of cherry tomatoes, halved
1 tsp sugar (optional but nice)
1 TBSP dried, chopped rosemary
2 TBSP balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
Liberal amount of salt and pepper to taste

Quicker-Cooking Veggies

1 bunch of asparagus, fibrous ends removed and remaining pieces cut into thirds
1 large onion, cut into strips
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1" chunks
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into 1" chunks
2 TBSP olive oil
1 TBSP balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

Freshly grated parmesan cheese (optional)
Crusty Bread or Bread Bowls

Place oven racks in the top third and bottom third of your oven. Preheat the oven to 425F. Coat the inside of two rimmed sheet pans with some olive oil.

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients for the longer-cooking veggies and toss to combine. Split the veggies between the two sheet pans. Bake 20 minutes, switching the sheet pans between the top and bottom racks halfway through the cooking time.

Right before the 20 minutes is up, combine the quicker-cooking ingredients. After the longer-cooking veggies have been in the oven for 20 minutes, take the sheet pans out of the oven and stir the veggies – using a spatula as needed to scrape up any that may have stuck to the pans. Add half of the quicker-cooking veggies to each sheet pan, toss again, and return to the oven for another 18 to 23 minutes (switching the pans halfway through) or until the veggies are as soft as you like. During baking, if the veggies look a little dry, add additional olive oil as needed.

Before serving, taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. If desired, toss with some freshly grated parmesan cheese. Serve in bread bowls or with crusty bread.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cooking Ventures Newsletter -- October 2009

Hello Blog Buddies!

It's hard to believe that my blog has been up and running almost three months already. I've posted over 50 recipes so far and my blog is now averaging about 250 page views per day and is viewed worldwide.  People email me almost daily to get cooking advice, request recipes, recommend improvements, send hate mail, and more. Feel free to email me anytime at or add a comment to an individual recipe posting.

Speaking of comments, the software I use for my blog seems to have a glitch and it can be challenging sometimes to leave a comment.  I just made some technical changes to my blog this weekend.  Hopefully, this will solve (or reduce) the number of errors that people get when they attempt to leave a comment.

If you have not yet subscribed to my blog, you can do so by entering your email on the right side of the screen (or subscribing via RSS feed). I will never sell or give your contact information to a third party. I hate spam as much as you do!

Several people have emailed me asking for permission to give a friend or a relative my website address. No need – my blog is public domain and can be viewed by anyone. The more, the merrier! 

You will notice that I added a translation widget in the right column.  I have readers in 38 countries and I wanted to make it easier for them to read my blog.  I have also considered adding a metric converter in the right column.  I am very comfortable using the metric system so, instead of adding a converter, I may simply list both metric and U.S. measurements in each recipe so nobody would have to take the time to convert anything.  For those of you outside of the U.S, let me know what you think about that idea.  I'm trying to decide if it's worth the extra effort or not.

For the last several weeks, I have posted a recipe every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  I track how many people view my blog everyday and I noticed that readership is lowest on the weekends, which I found surprising.  You would think that people would have more time to read blogs on weekends rather than during the week but apparently I'm wrong.   For this reason, I have not been posting recipes on the weekends.  Posting three recipes a week can be a challenge sometimes.  When I started my blog, I never intended to post recipes quite this often but I've had such a fun time doing it!  For the next few weeks, I'm going to post 2 or 3 recipes per week and see how that affects readership.  I'll let you know how this experiment goes in my next newsletter.

Thank you all for allowing me to share my recipes with you! Enjoying – and happy cooking!


Friday, October 16, 2009

Breaded Chicken Breasts with Mushroom Gravy

My Venture into Mushroom Gravy

Let me first start by saying, I LOVE THIS RECIPE! Millie, who is a friend of a friend and one of my loyal blog readers, gave me her recipe for Breaded Chicken Breasts. I really enjoy getting recipes from other people – ESPECIALLY when they are written by hand. There's something about getting a handwritten recipe that makes it more personal. Think about your own recipe box. You probably have handwritten recipes from your mother, grandmother, favorite aunts, and good friends. When you flip through your recipes, you can't help but think of that person every time you see their handwriting. If that person has already passed away, a handwritten recipe is a tangible connection to that person and a great reminder of the wonderful times you spent together.

Anybody who has given me a recipe knows that, the first thing I like to do, is think of a way to change it! My mother knows that all too well since I have changed MANY of her wonderful recipes. I don't enjoy cooking because chopping onions and slaving over a hot pot is fun. I like to cook because I like creating new recipes and reinventing old ones. Wouldn't it be fun to work in a Test Kitchen developing new recipes all day long? What a great job that would be!

When Millie gave me this recipe, the first thing I did was make it without any major changes. It was really good. Could her recipe be improved upon? Could it be made differently and be just as good? I wasn't sure but I was very excited to try. After a couple of attempts, I came up with a version I liked just as well as the original. When you have time, check out the original recipe for Millie's Breaded Chicken Breasts. Thank you Millie for taking the time to handwrite this wonderful recipe for me!

I made a few changes to Millie's recipe and am posting my version of Breaded Chicken Breasts with Mushroom Gravy. You can compare it to Millie's recipe to see what I have changed. The picture at the top of the page is from my version of her recipe. If you want, you can click on the picture and a larger image will open up. On the left side of the picture, do you see that little cheese waterfall running into the mushroom gravy? Oooooooh. I loved that! After I took pictures, that's the first place I dug in. These are SO good! It's a must-try recipe.

The next time you want to give one of your special recipes to somebody, take the time to handwrite it. It will be a cherished reminder of your great cooking skills for generations to come. Enjoy – and happy handwriting!

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Breaded Chicken Breasts with Mushroom Gravy
(Printable Version)

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
Seasoning salt and pepper to taste
2 eggs, beaten
1 sleeve butter-flavored crackers (such as Townhouse or Ritz), crushed very finely
3 1/2 TBSP butter, divided use
1 onion, chopped
1/2 lb fresh mushrooms, chopped into 1/4" pieces
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 TBSP soy sauce
1 TBSP water
pepper to taste
3/4 cup chicken broth (low-sodium)
1 can Cream of Mushroom soup (low-sodium)
6 pieces Provolone Cheese

Preheat oven to 350F. Pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels. Season the chicken on both sides with some seasoning salt and pepper. Set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

Chop the onion. I put the mushrooms into a food processor and pulse them maybe 5 or 6 times to get them quickly cut up into small pieces. In a skillet over medium-high heat, add 1 1/2 tablespoons of butter. Quickly add the onions and mushrooms. Stir to coat (do not salt). Cook the mushroom mixture for about 15 minutes or until they are starting to brown nicely – stirring every 5 minutes or so. After the mixture is browning nicely, add the garlic and cook one minute longer. Add the soy sauce, water, and a little pepper to the mixture and stir – making sure to get any brown bits off of the bottom of the skillet. Cook about 1 minute longer or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Transfer HALF of the mushroom mixture, which will be used in making the gravy, to a medium-size bowl. Reserve the other half of the mushroom mixture for topping the chicken breasts. To the make the mushroom gravy, add the chicken broth, mushroom soup, and a little pepper to the sauted mushrooms in the bowl. Stir to combine. Set aside.

Wipe out the skillet you used to saute the mushroom mixture. Turn the heat to medium and add two tablespoons of butter to the skillet. While the skillet is reheating and the butter is melting, dip each chicken breast in the beaten eggs and coat in the crushed crackers. Saute the chicken on both sides until the coating has nicely browned – about 3 minutes or so per side. Do not attempt to cook all of the way through since the chicken will finish cooking in the oven.

When browned on both sides, place the chicken breasts in an ungreased 9 x 13" glass baking dish. Top each breast with some of the reserved mushroom mixture that you had not used in making the gravy. Place two pieces of cheese on top of each chicken breast (folding each piece in half before placing them on top). Spoon the mushroom gravy around the sides of the chicken breasts. Don’t worry about trying to put the gravy on top of the cheese. It'll just slide off when the cheese melts. Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes or until the cheese has browned nicely, the mixture is hot and bubbly, and the chicken is cooked through. To serve, spoon some of the gravy on a plate and place a chicken breast on top of the gravy. Serve with some mashed potatoes.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Snickerdoodle Muffins

My Venture into Muffins

My friend Sue got this recipe from someone who worked at the former Rock Island Cafe in Wichita. Sue is a great cook and made some changes to the original recipe. I also made various changes so this recipe is really starting to sway pretty far from the original. I love snickerdoodle cookies and would love to post my friend Denise's recipe but she said that, if I ever shared her recipe with anyone, she'd inflict serious damage to a part of my body that I'm particularly attached to. She didn't specify the body part but I'm not taking any chances and won't be sharing her recipe anytime soon. However, I was not sworn to secrecy when it comes to these muffins.

I have two versions of this recipe: fattening and INSANELY fattening. Since I have a doctor's appointment coming up, I decided to forego the INSANELY fattening version and save the extra calories. You know, when you think about it, the fattening version is almost like diet food in comparison to the INSANELY fattening version. Therefore, if you are watching your weight, I'd highly recommend the fattening version and save the INSANELY fattening version for relatives you don't like. Or emaciated super models. Or breakfast.

As you can see from the picture, these muffins have a little surprise in the middle. Do you know what it is? Cream cheese frosting! How clever is that?! Well, maybe it's not THAT clever but it's a lot more clever than putting a fortune inside a cardboard-tasting cookie. Is it just me or are Chinese fortune cookies getting really lame these days? I mean I'm not expecting writing that's worthy of a Pulitzer Prize or anything but there's got to be something better than "Man who stand on toilet get high on pot." That's not a fortune! That's a bad pun! Where's the old fashioned "You will make a lot of money" or "You will soon meet the love of your life." I see nothing wrong with getting a little false hope about becoming a millionaire after eating a big plate of mushu pork at the Wong Way Bistro and Noodle Emporium. Mistress Viana , my personal spiritualist, tea reader, and aura cleanser, would never associate with those quacks who write stuff for fortune cookies.

Anyway, what was I talking about? Oh, yeah, yeah. Snickerdoodle Muffins. These are really good. You have to try these. Enjoy – and happy snickering!

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Snickerdoodle Muffins
(Printable Version)

2 cups flour
1 cup sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/3 tsp salt
1 egg
1 cup milk
4 TBSP butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla

Cream Cheese Filling
1 1/3 oz cream cheese, softened
1 tsp butter, softened
1/2 cup powdered sugar, sifted
1/8 tsp vanilla

1/2 TBSP sugar
1/8 tsp cinnamon or more to taste

Preheat oven to 350F. Make the topping by mixing the sugar and cinnamon together. Set aside.

Make the filling by beating the cream cheese and butter together. When well blended, add the vanilla and mix until combined. Add the sifted powdered sugar and beat until smooth.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg, milk, melted butter, and vanilla. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and whisk until just combined.

Line a muffin tin with 10 muffin cups. I use two cookie scoops, one big and one small, to help fill the muffin cups. I use the larger cookie scoop to add batter to the bottom of each muffin cup (about 1/3 full). I then use the smaller cookie scoop to add the cream cheese filling (about the size of a raspberry) on top of the batter. Don't let the filling touch the sides. I then use the larger cookie scoop to fill the muffin cup nearly to the top with batter.

For the topping, you have two options. You can sprinkle the cinnamon/sugar mixture on each of the muffins before baking, which allows the sugar/cinnamon mixture to kind of bake into the tops. Or, you can bake the muffins and add the topping after you take the muffins out of the oven.

Bake the muffins for 18 to 20 minutes. Makes 10.

Alternate preparation: Do not add filling to the center of each muffin. Instead, quadruple the filling recipe (or multiple it by 6 to use up the entire brick of cream cheese) and use it as a cream cheese frosting after the muffins have been baked and cooled. Sprinkle the frosting with a pinch of cinnamon to make them look pretty. They are REALLY, REALLY good this way but a lot more fattening. I apologize for the extra calories if you choose to make them this way

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mediterranean Couscous Salad

My Venture into Couscous

I can hear what you're thinking. "Couscous and Lentils?! I never cook with that stuff. This sounds too exotic for me." Don't be afraid! Couscous is nothing but granules of semolina (durum wheat) – the same stuff pasta is made out of. Lentils are a member of the legume family (like beans) and cook up in no time. In fact, the couscous and lentils each take only about 5 minutes to cook so you can throw this dish together really fast. There is nothing strange or exotic about their flavors. In fact, by themselves, they are a little on the bland side – like plain rice and beans would be.

I used to be a vegetarian and fixed this dish all of the time. Yes, it is healthy. Yes, it's protein rich. Yes, it's pretty to look at – but I didn't make it all of the time for any of those reasons. I fixed it because it is SO GOOD! It is truly very refreshing to eat. In fact, I could eat this entire dish in one setting so I REALLY have to control myself when I make it. It's great for picnics and potlucks. It's perfect at lunch. I woke up a while ago and just ate some for breakfast. I know, I know! I need help!

From the picture, you will notice that I forgot to add the slivered almonds. Ooops! You can certainly leave them out but I like the crunch they add to the dish. I sometimes add some finely, finely grated parmesan cheese to the dish as well. The cheese gives it a little extra flavor in the background. I didn't add it this time because I have a doctor's appointment in a couple of days. I always try to eat healthier right before going to the doctor so when he asks me if I have been dieting and eating healthful foods, I can say "Oh, yeah! Sure!" I tell you – if I had to go to the doctor every week, I'd weigh 13 pounds because I'd be forced to eat healthy all of the time. Let's hope my doctor is not reading this.

Anyway, don't let these unusual ingredients freak you out. You will love this dish! Enjoy – and happy couscousing!

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Mediterranean Couscous Salad
(Printable Version)

5 1/4 cups water, divided use
1/2 cup lentils (I use red but you can use any color)
1/3 cup finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (not packed in oil)
2 shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Zest of one lemon
1/4 cup finely grated carrots
1/2 cup slivered almonds
2 pinches salt
2 TBSP chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (I use 1/3 cup)
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup couscous
1/3 cup finely grated parmesan cheese (very optional)

In a medium saucepan, add 3 cups of water and the lentils. Bring to a boil and reduce to a gentle simmer and cook, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Taste the lentils. If they are not yet soft, cook another couple of minutes and taste again. You might have to cook yours for as long as 15 minutes. The important thing is to cook the lentils until they are JUST barely soft or they will quickly turn to mush. Drain and rinse the lentils under cool water. Allow the lentils to drain fully while preparing the remaining ingredients.

While the lentils are cooking, heat about 1 cup of water to boiling in the microwave. Add the water to the finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes to allow them to rehydrate some. Some brands of sun-dried tomatoes are particularly dry. Some are more moist. The kind I normally purchase are fairly moist so I only let them soak about 5 minutes. Soak them as long as you want to get your desired level of softness. When the tomatoes have rehydrated to your liking, drain off the water and add the tomatoes to a large bowl.

To the same bowl with the tomatoes, add the shallots, garlic, lemon zest, carrots, almonds, salt, basil, lemon juice, and olive oil. Whisk together and set aside while you prepare the couscous.

In a medium saucepan, bring 1 1/4 cups of water to a boil then add the salt and slowly stir in the couscous. Cover the saucepan, take it off the heat, and let it rest for 5 minutes. Use a fork to fluff the couscous. Let the couscous cool, uncovered, for about 5 minutes – stirring every minute or so with a fork.

Add the lentils to the bowl with the other ingredients. Add the couscous and stir to combine. Serve immediately or refrigerate for later use.

1) I use extra-virgin olive oil in mine. However, if you are not used to using extra-virgin olive oil, choose your brand of olive oil wisely. If you do not like the flavor of your olive oil, the other flavors in this dish will not disguise that.
2) I like tart things. I normally add 1/3 of a cup of lemon juice, which makes this dish very lemony. I think that's a good thing. Some of you, however, may want to add a smaller amount (such as 1/4 cup of lemon juice). If needed, you can add a little more after you have tasted it at the end.
3) You can make this a day in advance and keep it refrigerated. If you do, I highly recommend that you use the full 1/3 cup of lemon juice because the flavors mellow a lot in the fridge.
4) You can find tri-colored couscous in many supermarkets nowadays. This adds a lot of festiveness to the dish. Couscous can be usually be found in the same aisle as rice or beans (or in the ethnic aisle). In my store, it is also sold in small packages in the produce section next to the packages of sun-dried tomatoes, shallots, etc.
5) Don't want to use lentils? No problem. You can use a can of black beans that have been rinsed and drained.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Budget-Friendly Goulash

My Venture into Budget Cooking

I have been getting a lot of requests lately for budget-friendly recipes so I decided to post a variation of my mother's goulash. In these tough economic times, it makes sense to be more frugal when cooking. For example, I normally buy sparkling wine instead of imported Champagne and domestic caviar instead of Beluga. All joking aside, to save money on my food bill, I normally try to plan menus around items that are on sale that week and use coupons when I can.

My mother is the QUEEN of budget cooking and could feed an army for under $10. She made goulash all of the time when we were growing up. It may be inexpensive to make but it does not compromise flavor in any way. We may not have been wealthy growing up but we certainly ate well as this recipe will attest. A few months ago, I asked my mom for the recipe but, like many experienced cooks, she doesn't have anything written down. Because she hadn't made it in years, she couldn't remember the finer details of this budget-friendly classic so I filled in the blanks using my own imagination.

Before I get hate mail from half of the people in Hungary, I am well aware this recipe does not, in any way, resemble classic Hungarian goulash. In some parts of the U.S., this dish is actually called Slumgullion. I kind of like that name but, to me, Slumgullion sounds more like the name of a thoroughbred race horse than a hamburger-macaroni dish. Can't you see yourself betting $5 on Slumgullion at the Kentucky Derby?

I bought most of the ingredients for this dish on sale and it cost me less than $6 to buy everything. This makes a lot of goulash so you'll probably have a ton of leftovers. The leftovers are great and easy to reheat. Someone reminded me that, if I had coupons for some of the items, I could have probably made this for under $5. Whether you want a budget-friendly recipe or not, this recipe is really good! It's hearty and very filling. You have to try it sometime. Enjoy – and happy frugal cooking!

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Budget-Friendly Goulash
(Printable Version)

1 TBSP oil
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef
1 tsp kosher salt (or 1/2 tsp table salt)
1/2 tsp black pepper
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 TBSP chili powder
1 tsp paprika
1 TBSP tomato paste
2 14.5 oz cans diced tomatoes (I like a zesty variety)
1/2 tsp kosher salt (1/4 tsp table salt)
1/4 tsp black pepper
8 oz macaroni (or any other kind of pasta)
2 TBSP chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Fill a pot with some water for the pasta, cover, and set over high heat. Start heating a large skillet over medium heat with 1 tablespoon of oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion and saute for 2 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute longer. Add the ground beef, salt, and pepper and cook until fully browned. Drain.

While still over medium heat, add the bell pepper, chili powder, paprika, and tomato paste to the ground beef and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the diced tomatoes, 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper then stir to combine. Cover and bring to a gentle simmer.

When the meat mixture has come to a full simmer, add a good amount of salt to the boiling water. Add the pasta then stir to combine. Cook the pasta two minutes less than the shortest cooking time listed on the box. You want it undercooked. While the pasta is cooking, stir the meat mixture periodically.

Drain the pasta and immediately add it to meat mixture then stir to combine. Allow the pasta and meat mixture to simmer together for about 3 to 4 minutes or until the pasta is as done as you like it. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Add the parsley and stir to combine. If desired, serve with some cheddar cheese or parmesan cheese.

I bought the ground beef, bell pepper, tomato paste, and diced tomatoes on sale. I used some farfalle that I had in my pantry but you can use whatever pasta you like. I had some parsley left over from another dish so I threw it in to freshen the flavors. This entire dish cost less than US$6 to make – and it feeds a lot of people. If money is really tight, use less ground beef (or none at all) and throw in some drained black beans or some undrained chili beans. Don't buy parsley just for this dish. The tomato paste adds great depth so buy it if you can afford it. Otherwise, leave it out.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sicilian Butter

My Venture into Garlic

Of all of the recipes in my arsenal, this dipping oil is THE thing my mother requests most often. She likes it with an entire HEAD of garlic (about 15 cloves). Trust me – that's enough garlic to curl your toenails. I prefer to add half that amount. Even then, it's still too garlicky for some people. Warning: This recipe is for true garlic lovers only. Expect your taste buds to be fully stimulated.

My inspiration for this delicious concoction comes from a restaurant I used to frequent called Garozzo's. This recipe is my attempt to recreate their wonderful dipping oil. I could eat an entire loaf of bread when dipping it into this garlicious oil. The name implies that it has butter in it. It doesn't. I'm not sure why they named it Sicilian Butter. Frankly, I don't care. The only thing I know is that it's GOOD.

I have served this recipe at MANY dinner parties. People react three different ways when eating it: 1) they absolutely love it, 2) they like it but want me to add more garlic, or 3) they take a bite, their eyes bug out, and they start coughing – like they just took a swig of moonshine straight from the bottle. It's unapologetically intense. Oh, and it's fattening, too. Really fattening. What makes matters worse is that, once you've started eating it, YOU CANNOT STOP! It is so addictive!

Give your taste buds a workout and try this recipe. Enjoy – and happy fighting vampires!

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Sicilian Butter
(Printable Version)

8 cloves garlic (about 1/2 of a head) or to taste, minced
1 1/4 cups high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil

2 to 3 pinches of salt
1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
2 pinches red chili flakes (optional)
2 tsp chopped, fresh basil

THIS IS GARLICKY! Despite the name, it contains no butter. I prefer to whisk all of the ingredients together (except for the basil) and let the mixture sit on the counter in a covered bowl for a couple of hours to allow the flavors to meld. Right before serving, I add the chopped basil. Serve the Sicilian Butter in shallow serving plates with Italian bread, focaccia, or French Bread. You can easily halve or double the recipe as needed.

Note Regarding Olive Oils: If you do not normally use olive oil, you may not appreciate the bitter/herbal characteristics of some extra virgin olive oils. I like first-pressed olive oils the best but, for some people, they are an acquired taste. If you're unaccustomed to using olive oil, I recommend you use a light olive oil the first time. Light, in this context, means "lightly flavored" as opposed to "low in calories." If you plan on using an olive oil that you've never tasted before, please be sure to taste the oil before making this recipe. If you hate the taste of the oil straight from the bottle, the rest of the ingredients will not make up for that.

Note Regarding Garlic: This recipe is intended to be very garlicky. My mother prefers an entire HEAD of garlic in it (about 15 cloves or so). That much garlic could curl your toenails. Eight cloves is still VERY garlicky. Feel free to use less. You can always add more later. Another option would be to measure out the 1 1/4 cups of olive oil and then pour a tablespoon of that oil into a small skillet over medium-low to medium heat. Don't let the skillet get too hot. Add the garlic to the skillet and gently, gently cook it for about 30 seconds – no more. Add the cooked garlic back into the olive oil you measured out earlier. This short cooking time will significantly reduced the harsh flavor of the garlic. In my family, this technique would be heresy.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tacos al Pastor (Healthier Version)

My Venture into Shepherd-style Tacos

Tacos al Pastor or Shepherd's Tacos are normally made with pork shoulder. Pork shoulder, although succulent, is not exactly figure-friendly. I decided to make a healthier version of these tacos by using lean pork tenderloin so I could eat them more often without all of the guilt.

The first time I had Tacos al Pastor was on a trip to Mexico that I made with a group of friends when I was in college. Two of the girls I was traveling with, Sarah and Heather, were these Angelina-Jolie-looking things that always attracted the attention of would-be suitors in every place in Mexico we visited. In one town, the three of us were walking down an alley lined with street vendors selling different foods, clothing, perfumes, fake watches, etc. The girls spoke with a slight twang and didn't speak a word of Spanish but still managed to communicate volumes with their big bosoms, fluttering eyelashes, and long, flowing hair.

I stopped at a stall selling something that looked like gyros. I watched them layer pork shoulder bathed in a chili/pineapple concoction on a vertical spit. When they turned it on, it slowly rotated -- cooking the pork with a heating element covering one side of the meat. Once it had cooked a while, the "chef" would shave off the outer edge of the meat and throw it on a grill to crisp up. They then served the meat in tortillas with a variety of toppings from which to choose. I asked the cook (in Spanish) what he was making and he said "Tacos al Pastor." He then went on to explain how they were made. They looked delicious so I, of course, had to buy one. I took one bite and was in heaven!

Meanwhile, Sarah and Heather were at another stall looking at some cosmetics. I don't want to be impolite and say that Sarah and Heather were "ugly Americans." They were a bit culturally insensitive and let's just leave it at that. Since neither of them spoke Spanish, they always spoke English to everybody they approached -- expecting the good people of Mexico to understand what they were saying. Even from a distance, I could hear every word of their conversation because they assumed that, by simply speaking louder, the Mexican shopkeepers would be better able to understand them. Heather was haggling with the cosmetics vendor over a small tube of Bonne Bell Strawberry-flavored Lip Smacker. I, meanwhile, took the opportunity to practice my Spanish with the taco vendor as I ate.

Heather and Sarah shared a fanny pack and they took turns wearing it. Neither liked wearing it because they thought it made them look fat. Trust me. I know how they feel. I look like I have about 20 of them strapped around my stomach and another 10 glued to my backside. That day, Sarah got stuck wearing it. Heather needed some money to pay for the lip gloss so Sarah unbelted the fanny pack, gave it to Heather, and held onto the lip gloss while Heather dug through the fanny pack looking for some spare pesos. For those of you who are from the UK and other parts of the world, a "fanny pack" is a "bum bag." I learned the difference the hard way when I asked a British lady one time where she got such a big fanny pack. I thought she was going to slap me. Anyway, Heather was digging for some pesos in the fanny pack while Sarah was standing there reading the label on the lip gloss. Without warning, a guy standing near them tried to snatch the fanny pack out of Heather's hands. She had a death grip on that thing so he didn't get away with it as easily as he would have liked. Heather put her foot up against his stomach to give her more leverage as they played tug-of-war with the fanny pack. That day, she was wearing cork wedge platform heel shoes that must have come from a stripper store and a very tight miniskirt and so I was shocked she could lift her leg so high with such ease. Sarah, on the other hand, just stood there like a deer in headlights saying "oh, oH, OH!". I had a choice to make. I could drop that heavenly taco and go help OR mind my own business and let the guy get away with a dime-store fanny pack filled with 7 pesos, a used Kleenex, and a year's supply of Kaopectate. The choice was clear. Sarah decided to help by throwing the lip gloss at the guy, which hit him in the chest and conveniently bounced into one of his hands. With one big jerk, he pulled the fanny pack out of Heather's hands and was off in a flash.

Meanwhile, Sarah was continuing to waive her hands in the air and screaming "oh, oH, OH!". Heather screamed "POLICIO! POLICIO!" and the cosmetics vendor pointed to a nearby building housing the local police department. Heather and Sarah tore off for the police station in a flash and I reluctantly followed – taco in-hand, of course.

When we got into the station, Heather ran up to the front desk and rang the bell, like, 40 times. A portly, older gentleman came to the counter and the conversation went something like this:

HEATHER: Oh my God! I just got mugged! He got all of our money!
SARAH: And some Bonne Bell Lip Smacker. Strawberry-flavored. It was brand new – you can ask that one guy. He'll vouch for us.
HEATHER: Who cares about the lip gloss?! My purse was my stolen!
SARAH: Well, actually, it was your fanny pack. You left your purse at the hotel.
HEATHER: WHATEVER! [Directing her attention back to the police guy] OK, it was a Mexican guy. He was wearing a red shirt with…
SARAH: It was more like cranberry.
HEATHER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Cranberry. A cranberry-colored shirt with blue jeans. He was, like, 5' 6" tall and had…
SARAH: No, I think he was a little taller than that. I'm 5' 6" so I'm thinking he's maybe 5' 8" or so.
HEATHER: OK, whatever. He was a short, Mexican guy. Anyway, he ran that way [pointing], you know, near that tack-o stand over there.

Meanwhile, I continued to eat my taco while staring at this mean-looking cat on the front counter that looked like he was just seconds away from mauling me. I tried to put some distance between me and the attack cat and accidentally bumped into Heather – causing some of the meat from my taco to fall onto her stripper shoes. I was so annoyed with myself for being so clumsy. After all, I wanted to eat EVERY morsel of that wonderful taco meat. Hmmm, I wonder if the 5-second rule would have applied in Mexico, too? Anyway, I digress…

HEATHER: Will you stop eating that STUPID tack-o and DO SOMETHING?!
VINCE: [With my mouth full] Wellth, whath do yous wanth ME to do?

Heather started sobbing, angrily flicked the taco meat off of her foot, and turned her attention back to the police guy.

HEATHER: [Slapping her hands on a tablet on the counter] WHY AREN'T YOU WRITING ANY OF THIS DOWN?!
POLICE GUY: Uuuuuuhhh, no Eeenglish. You espeak espanish?

I almost choked on my taco.

Heather, Sarah, and I eventually lost touch but I still have vivid memories of that day. It was the day I fell in love with Tacos al Pastor. This version is much healthier – but is still very tasty. It is SO good. Enjoy – and happy shepherding!

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Tacos al Pastor (Healthier Version)
(Printable Version)

8 Dried New Mexico Chilis (or a more traditional mixture of guajillo and pasilla chilis)
Water for steeping the chilis
1 large onion, roughly chopped
10 cloves garlic
1 TBSP cumin
1 1/2 tsp oregano
1 tsp paprika
2 TBSP kosher salt (or 1 TBSP table salt)
1 chipotle pepper (I normally add 2)
2 TBSP adobo sauce
2 TBSP vinegar
1 1/2 cups fresh pineapple

5 to 6 lbs pork tenderloin
Small tortillas (corn or flour)
Toppings: onions or scallions, limes, sour cream, chopped cilantro, cubed fresh pineapple, sharp cheddar cheese, etc.

De-stem and de-seed the chili peppers. Put the chilis in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and remove the saucepan from the heat. Let the chilis steep in the hot water for about 25 minutes.

While the chilis are steeping, prepare the other ingredients and add them to a bowl. This includes roughly cutting up the onion, garlic, and pineapple as well as measuring out the other ingredients for the marinade.

When the chilis have steeped for about 25 minutes, remove the chilis from the water and add the chilis to a blender. Add about 1/2 cup of the steeping water to the blender as well to make it easier to puree the chilis. Discard the remaining steeping water. Fully puree the chilis. Using a fine-mesh strainer, strain the pureed chilis into a large bowl – pushing and scraping the chilis through the strainer. Discard the skins and solids that will not go through the strainer.

Add the remaining marinade ingredients to the blender and fully puree. Add the puree to the bowl with the strained chilis (no need to strain the other ingredients). Stir to combine, cover, and refrigerate about 1 hour.

Remove the pork tenderloin from the package and dry it well with paper towels. Remove all excess fat and silver skin. Cut the tenderloin lengthwise into 4 long pieces. Pour a little of the chilled marinade to coat the bottom of a 9x13" glass dish. Add the meat to the glass dish and cover with the remaining marinade. Make sure all of the pieces are fully coated in the marinade then cover and refrigerate about 1 1/2 hours. Do not marinate longer than 1 1/2 hours or the enzymes in the pineapple will start breaking down the meat.

About 20 minutes before the meat has finished marinating, take the meat out of the refrigerator to take the chill off. Start preheating your oven at 425F. Cover a rimmed sheet pan with aluminum foil then place an oven-safe rack in the sheet pan.

When the pork has finished marinating, place the pork on the rack. Make sure the top of the pork has nice, even layer of the marinade (discard any remaining marinade left in the glass dish). Place the sheet pan in the oven and pour about 1 cup of water into the sheet pan. Bake the pork for roughly 25 to 30 minutes or until the internal temperature of the pork has reached 160F. The cooking time is only a rough guide. Tent the pork and allow it to rest for 15 minutes before cutting.

Cut the pork into small, bite-size pieces. At this point, the meat may be refrigerated and the meat will taste even better the next day. This is especially nice if you are having a dinner party because you can cook the meat the day before.

To make the tacos, heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add about 1 TBSP of oil to the skillet. When the oil is hot, add a single layer of meat to skillet (don't overcrowd the meat). Don't move the meat because you want to develop a nice, brown sear on one side. Once seared, serve on warmed tortillas with an assortment of toppings. This preparation has significantly less fat than when prepared with traditional pork shoulder so eat it without the guilt.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Flower Pot Brownies with Rich Chocolate Mousse

My Venture into Culinary Landscaping
Today is one of my dearest friend's birthdays. Happy birthday Sweetie! There are two things Denise loves in life – dark chocolate and football. She is a huge fan of the Kansas City Chiefs, which I understand is a football team. This may come as a surprise but I am not a sports fan. I do, however, enjoy the fattening foods they serve at athletic stadiums as my big patootie will attest.

The idea for this dish comes from
Pioneer Woman – a great website that you need to check out. I love her recipes and incredible photography!

For the filling, I was inspired by a recipe from
Wayne on I tweaked the recipe some to get it the way I liked it. I'm not a chocolate fan so it's not something I would normally eat but others have told me they like it.

I bought the flower pot from a website specializing in the personalization of gift items. As you can see from the top image, I had Denise's name inscribed on one side of the pot. On the other side, I put "KC Chiefs Fan". Hopefully, she'll like it!

My goal was to make the filling in the flower pot look as realistic as possible. The pictures below will give you a better idea of how I assembled the pot. I normally prefer to shoot pictures for my blog using natural sunlight. Because I had to bake the brownies, let them cool, make dinner, etc, after I got home from work, I ended up having to shoot the pictures in my kitchen under fluorescent lighting in the late evening so please forgive me for the poor image quality. It definitely looks better in real life.

The recipe is at the bottom of this webpage. Here is how to assemble the flower pots (you may click on the image to see it larger):

Cut a small circle of parchment paper and place it in the bottom of the flower pot. This will keep everything from falling out of the water hole. Pinch off little pieces of the prepared brownies to make them look like clods of dirt and place them in the bottom of the pot. Add some clods then insert a straw (one with as large an opening as possible).

Add some walnuts to the top of the clods of dirt. The nuts are meant to look like a little sedimentary layer of rocks in the soil.

Add some of the prepared chocolate mousse. The mousse kind of looks like clay once it sets up. I don't like chocolate but this mousse is REALLY good! Notice how I got some mousse on the side of the straw? I'm a real slob when I coook. I dropped the straw on the floor and stepped on it a couple of times. Don't worry, I licked it clean before putting in the flower pot. Shhh. Don't tell Denise. She'll never know.

Add another layer of brownie clods and walnut rocks.

Add another layer of mousse. Would somebody keep me away from this mousse?!

Add a final layer of the brownie clods but don't add any more nuts or mousse.

Snip off the straw about 1/4" about the brownie clods. Crush some Oreo cookies in a resealable bag. It's amazing how the crushed Oreos look like potting soil. The white filling from the cookies makes it look like that stuff manufacturers add to potting soil. The crushed Oreos will be our topsoil. Add enough to come up to the top of the straw.

Stick a couple of flowers into the straw opening and voila! You have a realistic-looking flower pot filled with decadent brownies and mousse. You have to try this sometime. It will make a cool surprise for any special occasion. Happy Birthday Denise! You don't look a day over 29!

Enjoy -- and happy landscaping!

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Flower Pot Brownies with Rich Chocolate Mousse
(Printable Version)

The Soil
1-19.9 oz Betty Crocker Dark Chocolate Fudge Brownie Mix, prepared as noted below with water, eggs, and oil

The Clay
1/2 cup milk
1 can sweetened condensed milk, refrigerated
1-3.9 oz box of instant chocolate pudding mix
1-8 oz container of whipped topping

The Sedimentary Layer
1 cup English walnut pieces

The Topsoil
About 15 Oreo cookies, pulverized to look like top soil

Flower Materials
2 (4.5") glazed flower pots, cleaned and dried
2 straws (preferably with big holes)
Flowers of your choice such as daises, asters, chrysanthemums, carnations, orchids, etc

Prepare the Soil
Instead of using a 9x13" baking dish, use a 9 x 9" pan to produce a thicker brownie than normal. Spray the pan liberally with cooking spray. Prepare the fudge brownies per the instructions on the box. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and adjust the baking time and temperature as listed on the box to compensate for the smaller pan. It is very important not to over bake the brownies. Allow the brownies to cool in the pan for 1 hour before filling the pots.

Prepare the Topsoil
Add the Oreos to a resealable bag and use a rolling pin to break up the cookies into small crumbs that resemble potting soil. Leave the bag sealed until the cookies are needed.

Prepare the Clay
Make the chocolate mousse by whisking together the milk, sweetened condensed milk, and chocolate pudding mix. Using a spatula, fold the whipped topping into the chocolate mixture until all of the white streaks are gone.

Assemble the Flower Pots
Cut two 3" circles of parchment and place one in the bottom of each pot (to cover the water holes). Use a spatula to loosen the brownies from the pan and dump the brownies onto a plate. No need to be gentle because you are going to be tearing the brownies into pieces in a minute anyway.

Pinch off pieces of brownies in small "clods of dirt" and add the clods to the bottoms of the pots – about 1" deep. Slightly pack the clods into the bottoms. Place the straws upright in the center of the pots. Sprinkle a few walnuts on top of the clods. Next, add a layer of the clay (chocolate mousse) to each pot. Add another layer of brownie clods, more walnuts, and then another layer of mousse. Add a final layer of brownie clods and lightly pack but do not add additional mousse or walnuts. Snip off the straw about 1/4" above the brownies. At this point, you may enclose the entire pot in plastic wrap (including the bottom) and refrigerate until needed (maybe up to a day).

When ready to serve, add two to three flowers to each straw – trimming the stems as needed to the appropriate height. Add a layer of the crushed Oreos to the top – making sure to cover the straw so it cannot be seen
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