Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Feast: Apricot Sausage Stuffing

Whether you are gobbling up turkey, hogging all the ham, or carving a nice slice of roast beast, everyone has his or her ideal Christmas Feast.   Mother Nature and I were up early this morning, and not just for the presents.   She provided the soft serenity of a White Christmas, I was the one banging and clanging with my own “Heavy Metal” in the kitchen.   Warm aromas of apricot glaze poured out of the oven and a saccharine smell of the makings of pecan pie wafted from the stove top.  This year, Christmas dinner featured a crown roast and apricot sausage stuffing.  If turkeys fear Thanksgiving, then pigs probably hate Christmas. 
In the morning, I opened my long-awaited present from Santa: the 13 inch All-Clad French Skillet with lid.  It was my “Red Rider BB Gun”.   I had a foodie moment as I admired the new lifetime cooking partner: sleek stainless steel, curvature of the handle, and aluminum core.  Cooking with it felt natural. “This is the way it’s supposed to be”, I kept repeating as I fried the sausage, onions, garlic, and celery for the stuffing.  It was a family affair as I taught my brother how to brown the sausage and vegetables and my grandparents gathered the other ingredients from the pantry.  I zested lemons, squeezed fresh orange juice, and chopped up dried apricots – eating half of the soft, sweet ones.   But that’s how one stays full until dinner!  A pound of white bread crumbs later, I was shoving a ceramic dish heaping with stuffing into the oven.
When it landed on the dining room table among the other holiday foods, the stuffing was still a standout.  The fluffy golden mass was the marriage of natural sweetness from the fruit and bold, salty flavor from the sausage.   Soaking the bread with chicken broth, orange juice, lemon juice and spices gave the stuffing a savory richness along with a citrus undertone.   We all enjoyed as many helpings as we could until our stomachs stopped accepting visitors.
*Side note: this recipe is adapted from Land O Lakes, Treasury of Country Heritage Meals and Menus for a holiday celebration, so it serves 8. 

Apricot Sausage Stuffing
1 cup (2 medium) onions, chopped
1 cup (2 stalks) chopped celery, chopped
1 pound sweet Italian sausage
1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 (14 ½ oz) can chicken broth
½ cup orange juice
1 T lemon juice
1 cup (6 oz) dried apricots, chopped
1 pound loaf white bread, dried and torn
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 tsp dried thyme leaves
1 tsp dried sage leaves, rubbed
Salt and pepper (about ½ tsp each)
1 T lemon peel, grated

1.       Preheat oven to 325˚.
2.       While that is preheating, put sliced bread on baking sheets and toast for about 10-15 min, or until dried.
3.       In skillet, cook onions, celery, sausage, and garlic over medium high heat.  Stir occasionally until browned, about 10 min. Drain off fat.
4.       In large bowl, combine all remaining ingredients.  Add in sausage mixture. 

5.       Spoon into large casserole dish.
6.       Bake for 55 to 60 min or until heated through.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I’m Not Full, I’m Stuffed: Stuffed Artichokes

Artichokes are the roses of fresh produce.  Just as every rose has its thorn, so too does this relative of the thorny thistle.  Half the population would never realize that if they only judged the lifeless, mushy canned variety.   Globe Artichokes are what you would most commonly see in stores.  Artichokes are at their prime in the spring, but the season does not always dictate my menu. 
Fresh out of the grocery bag I was staring at a spiky, green globe with coarse, mostly inedible leaves that tightly enclosed a hairy “choke” just above the heart.  How long this will take to get in my belly?!  Minus the fuzz that must be scooped out, the heart and some inner leaves are edible.  Even parts of the outer artichoke leaves are edible, but make sure you chomp down on the lower, fleshy part.   Most of us stopped eating leaves after we finished teething.    Now we have an outlet to satisfy this herbivore urge.   Even adults have fun with their food.
In the store, pick artichokes with tightly closed leaves.  Once they are slated to cook, then you want them to open up wide for stuffing.  To soften the artichokes, you boil them.  An artichoke may seem like a small vessel, but it packs a load of meaty stuffing and bubbles over with melted cheese.   The stuffing is just the opener, though.  The robust, meaty heart of the artichoke is the true show-stopper.   After being boiled, the heart is tender but bold with flavor.  Too soon did I devour the heart and leave myself with only the wreckage of teeth-scraped leaves.  Alas…

Stuffed Artichokes
4 artichokes
¾ lb ground Italian Sausage
½ onion, finely diced
2 cups bread crumbs [can use toasted sliced bread cut into small cubes]
Dried Basil and Oregano, Garlic Powder, Salt and Pepper
Milk – enough to make a ‘wet stuffing’
1 cup Cheddar Cheese, shredded

1.       First, wash you artichoke in cold water.  Make sure that you clean between the leaves.  Dry with clean towel.
2.       Cut off the top 1-2 inches of the artichoke where most of the leaves are tightest.  Remove anything that can be easily removed.
3.       Use a pair of kitchen scissors to trim off the thorns on the remaining leaves. 
4.       Place the artichokes in boiling water for about 30-40 min or until they have softened.  Remove and let cool slightly.
5.       Pull leaves apart as much as possible to remove hairy “choke” and the purple leaves covering the heart [remove enough leaves to make adequate room for stuffing]. 
6.       Meanwhile, in a frying pan, cook the ground Italian sausage over medium high heat. 
7.       Remove sausage.  Reserve about 2 T grease.  Drain excess grease.
8.       Add in diced onions, cook until translucent – about 5-7 min.
9.       In a mixing bowl, combine the sausage, onions, bread crumbs, spices and milk to make the wet stuffing.
10.   Cover top with cheese. 
11.   Bake at 350˚ for about 25-30 min, or until heated through and cheese has browned.   

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Asparagus Quinoa with Spicy Butter

In lieu of traditional holiday foods focused on fattening you up, I decided to go light for dinner.  It’s not that I despise Christmas cookies, mashed potatoes, or dinner rolls.  It’s half the reason I love being home for the holidays.  I’m just trying to cut down the amount of waddling from the dinner table this season.  
Quinoa has been a health food mystery to grocery stores and home pantries alike.  What do you do with it? Is it a grain? Does it taste good? Is it filling? Truth is quinoa [pronounced keen-wa] is a grain-like crop harvested for its golden seeds.   When cooked, it has a fluffy texture much like couscous or rice.  The nutty flavor and snapping sensation you feel when you eat it makes it uniquely ‘quinoa’ to me.  It is gluten-free, high in protein, and goes with just about anything.  It is also a good source of magnesium, iron, copper and phosphorus.  It has been used cold in salads, hot in soups, as a side dish for dinner or even as breakfast porridge.  Tonight, I paired the quinoa with asparagus, chicken and a spicy butter.
Forget unsalted vs. salted butter –grocery stores should be advertising ‘spicy butter’.  Finally, a cream that carries a kick!  The heat comes from the hot sauce, obviously.  But it also comes from the puckering taste of vinegar and a pungent aroma of wine in the Dijon mustard.  The hearty, ‘green’ taste of asparagus goes well with the sour tinge of lemon juice and Dijon, and is rounded out by the creamy butter.  Pair with chicken or pork, and enjoy a lighter meal that still satisfies you beyond dinner.

Asparagus Quinoa with Spicy Butter
[Adapted from 101 Cookbooks]
4 T butter, room temperature
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 tsp lemon juice
Tabasco Sauce/ Frank’s Hot Sauce, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
2 T olive oil
1 bunch of Asparagus, cut into about 1 in pieces
1 cup cooked quinoa
1 1/2 cups cooked chicken

1.       In a bowl, cream first 5 ingredients to make the Spicy Butter.  Keep in fridge until ready to use.
2.       Prepare quinoa.  Keep warm.

3.       In a frying pan, sauté asparagus with olive oil until fork tender.

4.       Mix together the asparagus, quinoa, butter, and chicken.  Serve warm, with extra hot sauce if desired.  

Friday, December 17, 2010

Meat Sauce

For the last three weeks I have been starving. Exams starve you of nearly everything: time, energy, food, brain space, will-power, and…did I say food? My kitchen table has been piled high with scraps of paper, highlighted text books, and coffee stains. But I am ready to put food back on the table where it belongs. After finally grasping the “meat” of my classes, I have had my fill of “brain food”. Homemade meat sauce was the warm, Italian welcome that I needed.
The sound of sizzling was no longer associated with my brain cells frying. It was the 2 pounds of ground beef and sausage singing “That’s Amore” on the stove top. The extra effort of hand-dicing tomatoes is therapeutic and I believe it makes the sauce taste better. It is also a practical way to make sure you don’t get any skins or pits in your sauce. Cutting up a whole can of tomatoes yielded me only half a can of hand-diced tomatoes. But that is because my mantra for tomatoes is: “One for me, one for the sauce”.
Meat sauce was one of the first secret family recipes I learned. Because it’s based in the “Holy Trinity” of spices: basil, parsley, and oregano, it’s unlikely the flavor will ever go wrong. Plus, I have been formally trained to be a vigilant taste-tester with anything I make. It’s really for the good of all, I say. This batch of meat sauce hit the fresh herbs lottery. A heaping handful of basil, rosemary, and thyme was tossed in along with dried oregano and parsley, courtesy of those who keep plants better than I. Fresh herbs jive well with meat sauce.
The torturous, bold aromas had me pacing the kitchen. “Are we there yet?!” was all I could think. Finally, it was dinner. The meat sauce gently blanketed the al dente angel hair, and parmesan fell soft as snow on top. Meat sauce is a romance food. Light a few candles, turn on some jazz, and you are in love. It has bravado and sexiness without being overbearing. It will keep you warm at night. And it will appeal even to kids. Some call it the “full package”, I call it meat sauce.
Meat Sauce
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground Italian sausage
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 cans (28 oz) whole tomatoes, hand-diced (remove pits and skins) *DO NOT DRAIN
2 cans (small) tomato sauce
1 can (small) tomato paste
Basil, Parsley, Oregano, Rosemary, Thyme, Salt and Pepper (to taste)
1 bay leaf
10 mushrooms, sliced
1. In large pot, fry ground meats over medium high heat.
2. As soon as just browned, remove meat and drain off most of the excess grease. RESERVE about 1 tablespoon.
3. In same pot, sauté onions and garlic over medium heat until translucent. Add meat back in.
4. Cut up tomatoes and add to meat and onions, along with the reserved tomato juice, tomato sauce and tomato paste.
5. Add herbs, s&p, bay leaf and mushrooms.
6. Bring sauce to a boil, reduce to simmer. Let simmer, covered, for at least 1 hour – flavors embolden with time. [I let mine simmer for about 4 hours]. Occasionally stir and check liquids.