Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Disappearing Act...

I've been away from my kitchen lately. Too busy to cook and certainly no time to blog! Anyone want to guess what I've been up to?

That's right!

I've been PAINTING...and cleaning....and packing. Last Friday we got the keys to our new house! We spent the weekend doing some repairs, priming, painting, and scrubbing.

Check out the new kitchen! (I should note that these were taken before the previous owners moved out. This is their furniture and "stuff" in the pics)

I'm gonna do some serious damage in here! With all of the room to move around and the increased work makes me want to do a little "happy dance" every time I look at it. I'm sure that this exuberance may wear off once I start cleaning and polishing all of this extra space...

Here's the view into the family room from the kitchen. Please pardon the photo, this one came from a real estate site advertising the home.

I'm diggin' the countertops!

So that's where I have been. We will be moved completely in less than 2 weeks so I'll be pretty busy making preparations this week and next. Plus, I have to pack up and then UN-pack my whole kitchen. YIKES! Until we get settled in, my crock pot is my new best friend. Well, my crock pot AND the Chinese take out place on the corner! I'll try to pop in with a post from time to time as I am able, but the meal plans are going on hold until February. If you're looking for ideas, just click the Meal Planning icon in my right sidebar and you'll have access to lots of previous meal plans featured on this blog.

Hope you are all having a great week!

Friday, January 14, 2011

BBQ Bacon Ranch Chicken Salad Wraps...Or A Dip!

Yesterday's post featured a delicious oven-roasted chicken. I love a roast chicken for the fact that it can be stretched into 2 (or even 3) dinners. This chicken salad would be a perfect way to use up leftover roast chicken. Although, I have to confess, the chicken used in this wrap was actually the by-product of one of my split chicken breast  processing sessions. From time to time I find split chicken breast halves on sale at my local market for as little as $.88/lb. When this happens, I purchase up to 20 lbs. and then spend an afternoon in my kitchen cutting the halves into meal-ready, boneless, skinless breast fillets for the freezer and boiling the "carcasses" into broth (recipe HERE) for future soups and sauces. I then pick the remaining meat off of the bone for chicken salad, soup, or casseroles. The 2 cups of chicken used for this chicken salad was the meat that I picked off of the bone during a Christmas break chicken processing session. You can read more about how I turned 18 lbs of chicken into 10 convenient meals HERE. It's a great way to save time (in the long run) and money!

I enjoy a good chicken salad and I am often on a quest for a great wrap "sandwich". As lunchtime rolled around one day during Christmas break, I found myself tired of leftovers, Lean Cuisine, ramen noodles, Mac n' Cheese, freezer pizza, cold cut sandwiches, and canned soup. I wanted something different and delicious. And so, I swept aside the LEGO'S and puzzles that had arrived on our little kitchen table sometime after breakfast and started hauling out the contents of my fridge to inventory and analyze for their "wrap worthiness".

First out, the chicken picked off the bone from the evening before. Second out, tortillas leftover from our most recent family "Taco Night". From there the other ingredients just fell into place: 1/4 of a leftover sweet red pepper, green onion, cilantro, shredded cheese, leftover fried bacon, ranch dressing, and barbecue sauce.

Do you do this? Pull out the contents of your fridge and get creative? The "stuff" that I need to use up is often the inspiration for a sandwich, pasta dish, or casserole. If you don't (yet), don't be afraid to get creative with your leftovers or produce that's "on it's way out"...give this a try sometime. Let your creativity flow! You may be surprised what you come up with. Waste not, want not!

After a bit of chopping, I combined the chicken, bacon, red pepper, and green onion.

Then I added the cheese, ranch dressing, and barbecue sauce. Stir it all together and scoop 1/3 to 1/2 cupful onto warmed flour tortillas (or the wrap of your choice). Top with a handful of cilantro.

Stir it all together and scoop 1/3 to 1/2 cupful onto warmed flour tortillas (or the wrap of your choice). Top with a handful of cilantro.

Now roll it up and enjoy!

As much as I enjoyed the wrap, while I was eating my lunch I began to wonder how this filling would taste warmed up. I kept thinking of the Frank's Red Hot Buffalo Chicken Dip that I like so much. And so, I heated a cup up in the microwave and sprinkled it with more cheese for a tortilla chip dip. Um....YUM! It was awesome warmed up, maybe even better!

I had to leave for the evening, but on the way out I told my husband to warm the "dip" in the fridge for dinner. It was a HUGE hit with him too!

You could warm this dip in the microwave or put it into a casserole dish and bake it at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until heated through.

BBQ Bacon Ranch Chicken Salad Wraps OR BBQ Bacon Ranch Chicken Dip

2 cups shredded white meat chicken
4 slices bacon, fried until crisp and crumbled
1/4 cup sweet red pepper, finely chopped
2 green onions, sliced
1/3 cup ranch dressing
1/3 cup barbecue sauce
1/2 cup shredded cheddar, Monterrey Jack, or Mexican Blend cheese
1 bunch cilantro
6 flour tortillas, warmed

Combine first 7 ingredients. Put 1/3 cup of mixture on each tortilla. Top with cilantro. Roll up, then slice in half before serving.

Combine first 7 ingredients. Sprinkle with additional cheese. Heat in microwave or bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until heated through. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro. Serve with tortilla crisps for dipping.

* Ideas for other stir-ins: black beans, chopped green chilies, or  fresh corn.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Balsamic Roast Chicken with Red Onion Sauce

I'm a big fan of roasting a whole chicken. It's a delicious meal that requires little preparation and depending on how many people sit around your dinner table, the leftovers can be stretched into another meal or two. Plus, a whole bird is pretty inexpensive. I think that I paid just a little over $4 for this chicken at my local Super Kmart.

I was so pleased with this Balsamic Roast Chicken. It's easily the best roast chicken I have ever prepared! It didn't really surprise me that I enjoyed this chicken so much. My husband and I love these flavors and often make a snack of rosemary focaccia bread dipped in balsamic vinegar and olive oil. What did surprise me was how much my kids loved this (minus the onion sauce). They both asked for seconds!

So succulent and flavorful, and the balsamic-onion sauce to finish was amazing!

I decided to begin by brining my chicken. I highly recommend brining! Including this step will lend itself to a more juicy, tasty, roast chicken. My brine recipe is included below, but basically I just boiled water with salt and a little sugar to dissolve the crystals. Then I cooled the brine to around 40 degrees and dropped my chicken in for the day. You could make the brine the night before and drop the chicken in the next morning before leaving for work, or you could just brine the chicken overnight. I think mine soaked for about 6 hours today.

A little over 2 hours before dinner time, I prepared a nice little bed of chopped red onion for my chicken. Just chop an onion and spread it around the bottom of a roasting dish. (I just used my Pyrex casserole dish).

Then I combined a little dry red wine, a little broth, and some balsamic vinegar.

Really, I meant to season the bird, place it on the onions and then pour the balsamic vinegar mix over the top. But I was distracted (by certain little people begging and pleading their case to spoil dinner with animal crackers and chocolate covered pretzels ) and so I ended up pouring the red wine/vinegar mixture right onto the onions. No problem though, when the time came, I just rolled the chicken around in the onion and vinegar-wine mixture so that it got a nice little coat.

To season the chicken, just mix together some minced garlic, rosemary, salt, pepper, and olive oil (the oil allows for easier spreading).

Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry. Then, rub the garlic-rosemary mixture under the skin before placing the chicken onto the prepared bed of onions.

Pop that bird into the oven and bake for 2 hours (or until a meat thermometer reads 180 degrees), basting with the pan juices a couple of times. This chicken emerged from the oven with a gorgeous brown skin, and the whole house smelled SO good! I couldn't wait to carve it!

While the chicken rests for about 15 minutes, transfer the pan juices into a bowl. As you can see from the picture, you'll want to skim off some of the fat...

leaving you with a rich, mouth-watering sauce to serve over the chicken.

The chicken was wonderful all on it's own with the flavors of the garlic and rosemary and all juicy from the brine, but that sauce just put it over the top! I mean it...this is the best roast chicken I have ever made! Loved it!

Balsamic Roast Chicken with Red Onion Sauce
inspired by this recipe from Healthy Cooking magazine, featured in the Aug/Sept 2010 issue

For Brine:

1 gallon water
1 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar

1 roasting chicken (6 to 7 pounds)
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary or 2 teaspoons dried rosemary, crushed
4 garlic cloves, minced
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 large red onion, chopped
1/4 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar


Boil salt and sugar in water until dissolved for brine. Cool to 40 degrees. Cover chicken with brine and refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

Remove chicken from brine. Pat dry. In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil; rub under skin of chicken. Place onion in a shallow roasting pan; top with chicken. Combine wine and balsamic vinegar; pour over chicken.

Bake, uncovered, at 350° for 2 to 2-3/4 hours or until a meat thermometer reads 180°, basting occasionally with pan juices. (Cover loosely with foil if chicken browns too quickly.)

Let stand for 15 minutes before carving. Remove and discard skin before serving. Pour onion sauce into a small bowl; skim fat. Serve with chicken. Yield: 12 servings (1-1/2 cups onion sauce).

Nutrition Facts: 3 ounces cooked chicken with 2 tablespoons onion sauce equals 182 calories, 7 g fat (2 g saturated fat), 77 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrate, trace fiber, 25 g protein. Diabetic Exchange: 4 lean meat.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Crispy Orange Beef

This spicy, flavorful beef recipe is the perfect way to chase away the chill brought on by our latest snowstorm. Certainly hearty, it's a great way to warm up and fill your belly following an evening of shovelling or sledding. I found this recipe on Diana's Cocina, where "The belly rules the mind". I've ordered Orange Beef at Chinese restaurants in the past, so I can say with some authority that this recipe is an excellent knock-off. It's definitely going into my "Chinese Takeout At Home" file. Sure, making these takeout recipes at home does eliminate the convenience of calling in an order and picking it up at your local strip mall Chinese joint, but this way YOU can control the quality of ingredients used and pat yourself on the back with the sense of accomplishment that comes with making it yourself!

This recipe begins with a BIG chunk o' beef. 3 pounds! It called for flank steak, but I had a round steak in my freezer, so I used that. Round steak is usually better slow cooked to yield a tender product, but I found that when sliced very thin, against the grain, the round steak worked great for this recipe.

Slice all 3 lbs. into thin, bite-sized strips.

Then thoroughly toss with 1/3 cup of cornstarch. I transferred mine into a large dish to stir in the cornstarch so that the beef and cornstarch had plenty of room to combine and didn't "slop" over the sides. Cover and rrefrigerate for 30 minutes.

Now to make that beef "crispy"! With the exception of a hamburger, I don't think I have ever fried beef. It certainly was effective in achieving a crispy texture.

Heat 1/2 to 3/4 cup of cooking oil (I used canola) in a large heavy skillet or a wok. Add the beef, in batches, and fry for 3 or more minutes until browned. I recommend stirring the beef as it fries for even browning.

Drain on paper towels.

Now let's take a couple of steps back. While the beef and cornstarch chilled, before I fried it to a nice brown crisp, I also prepared the orange peel and chopped the green onions.

For the orange peel, just remove the skin from 1-2 oranges (you need enough peel for 1/4 cup chopped, plus some for garnish). Remove the pith from the orange peel. The pith is the puffy white part between the peel and the orange slices. It tends to be bitter. To remove the pith, I just laid the orange peel pieces on my cutting board, face down, flattened them as much as possible, and then held my knife flat and parallel to the peel and applied pressure as I made a back and forth motion with my knife as I moved it across the inside surface of the orange peel. If you've ever filleted at fish, this felt much the same.

Finely chop the peel.

Drain all but 2 tablespoons of oil from the skillet that you used to brown the beef and add in garlic, ginger, orange peel, and scallions. Stir fry for about 5 minutes.

To make the sauce, combine soy sauce, rice vinegar, hoisin sauce, honey, sesame oil, red pepper flakes, and water.

Return the fried beef to the skillet with the garlic, ginger, orange peel, etc. and toss to coat. Then pour on the sauce and cook over medium high heat until the sauce thickens.

While I was busy stir-frying at the stove, my kindergartner was busy creating abstract art from the orange and onion scraps. This funny face made me laugh.

Serve the Crispy Orange Beef over hot rice and garnish with orange peel and additional scallions.

I loved this! Definitely on the spicy side with 2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes in there, though. If you've got a cold, this is a great way to clear out the ol' sinuses! Way to spicy for the kiddos though, so they ate plain strips of fried beef that I had reserved before adding it back into the mix, plain rice, and some steamed broccoli for dinner instead. Speaking of broccoli...I think that would be good stirred into this Orange Beef too!

Here's the recipe, adapted from Diana's Cocina

Crispy Orange Beef

3 pounds flank steak, boneless sirloin, or round steak, cut into thin strips
1∕3 cup cornstarch
1/3 cup tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons hoisin sauce
2 tablespoons honey
3 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (adjust to taste)
1∕2 cup water
1/2 - 3/4 cup cooking oil
8 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
1∕4 cup minced orange peel, pith removed
8 scallions, white and green parts, thinly sliced
steamed rice, for serving
orange peel, thinly sliced, for garnish

Toss beef with cornstarch to evenly coat. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. In the meantime, in a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, tamari, hoisin sauce, honey, sesame oil, red pepper flakes, and water. Set aside.

In a wok or heavy skillet, heat the canola oil. Fry the beef, in batches, until browned, about 3 minutes each batch. Remove and let drain on paper towels.

Drain all but 2 tablespoons oil from the wok. Heat the oil over medium heat and add the garlic, ginger, orange peel, and scallions and stir-fry for 5 minutes. Add the beef and stir in the sauce. Raise the heat to medium-high and stir until sauce thickens. Serve over steamed rice with the orange slices on top.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Heart Cakes

My baby turned 3 today. She is truly a blessing to our family. She brightens every day with her gorgeous smile and her cute little personality. On Saturday, we celebrated her birthday with cake and ice cream and some good friends.

A couple of weeks before her birthday party, I asked her what kind of a party she wanted (Dora? My Little Pony?). She just shrugged. She has the cutest little shrug. This indifference was surprising to me because my oldest had definite and detailed ideas of what her party should look like from the age of 2 on. I decided to approach the subject from a different angle, "Okay, what kind of cake do you want?" She answered matter-of-factly, "A heart cake. A BERRY heart cake." I was surprised and thought that I had misunderstood. "Do you mean Strawberry Shortcake?" "Nooooo, Mommy," she answered, "A heart cake WITH berries!" Just to clarify, I asked, "And what will the cake taste like?" Then she smiled her big, beautiful smile and answered, "Chocolate." Whew. Glad I asked...

Here's what I came up with:

As luck would have it, I purchased a small heart-shaped baking pan similar to this Wilton Dimensions Cast-Aluminum Nonstick Crown of Hearts Panat a garage sale last summer. Finally, an opportunity to use it! Going with the "chocolate" request, I baked a Devil's Food cake mix into it for the occasion.

This was super easy to decorate, the pan made for a pretty cake all on it's own, so I just traced the lines with buttercream frosting, embellished with some dots and big stars for a border, and garnished with berries. I'm talking 10-15 minutes, from start to finish!

Since this heart cake was on the small side, I decided to provide the guest of honor with her very own birthday cake and then bake tiny individual heart-shaped cakes for her friends using my Wilton 6-Cavity Nonstick Heart Mini Cake Pan.The pan only makes 6 and 12 children would be attending the party, so I baked one pan of chocolate and one pan of vanilla.

On the morning of the party, I frosted and decorated the little hearts. These were served with vanilla ice cream. I have some weird aversion to scooping ice cream during a party, so I placed individual scoops of ice cream into  muffin cup liners, put them on a cookie sheet, covered them with plastic wrap, and put them back into the freezer a few hours before the party. Before calling guests to the table for a round of "Happy Birthday", I placed one muffin cup full of ice cream next to each little heart cake. Easy-peasy.

I decorated each heart just a little differently from the next. To avoid confusion, chocolate cakes were frosted with pink....

And vanilla cake was frosted with white.


Vanilla. You get the idea...

After baking the heart cakes, I had lots of leftover cake batter. I poured the remainder into muffin cups for cupcakes for the adults in attendance. If you don't have a big star tip for frosting cupcakes bakery-style, then check this out: Decorating Tip-#1M Star. I soooo prefer frosting with this tip to holding the cupcake and smoothing on frosting with a knife. Using a decorator's bag and tip is much easier and faster and the end result is prettier!

A few days before the party, I took my daughter to the local party store. "Alright, you can pick your plates and napkins." I told her. To my surprise (and delight) she by-passed all of the themed party packages (Barbie, Disney Princess, etc.) and walked straight to some plain pink plates. "Pink, mommy!" she exclaimed as she grabbed up a 24-pack of dessert plates. Okay, then. I completely appreciated her "less is more" approach to the tablescape. It's way more my style... : )  Granted, if she had reached for plates with characters smiling back at me, I would have indulged her. After all, you only turn 3 once! We've done Elmo and Dora and Ariel the Little Mermaid in the past...but I loved that she just picked a color instead.

On the way out of the store, I grabbed streamers in two colors of pink and a roll of white for decorations.

Tip: Streamers are cheap (about $.70 a roll) and you can cover a lot of area with them, making a room look festive for a child's birthday with just a little bit o' cash.

The morning of the party, I decorated the party room (under the management of my toddler).

I realize that the decor looked VERY similar to that of her 1st birthday party, which I planned without her input. Was she trying to recapture her youth? Ha ha.

Oh, and for a centerpiece....I grabbed all of the leftover Christmas goodies from my pantry (Fudge-covered mint Oreos, candy canes, peanut brittle, caramel corn, M&M's, a separated chocolate orange) and placed them in candy jars on the table.

As we all gathered 'round to sing the birthday song, I had one happy little birthday girl! She LOVED her special cake...

One more note: That's a "Shirley Temple" in front of my daughter. This happens to be her new favorite beverage when we go out to eat. Before the party, I poured a 2 liter of Sprite into a pitcher over 1/4 jar of maraschino cherries (with the juice) and tah-dah! Kiddie Cocktails! These were the perfect beverage for the pink motif of the party.

So that's my daughter's 3rd birthday party, but these ideas would easily be applied to Valentine's Day party! It's just a little over a month away after all...

Happy Monday, everyone!

Stay tuned for some Spicy Crispy Orange Beef Stir-Fry tomorrow!
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