Friday, May 25, 2012

Baked Mushroom and Zucchini Quesadillas with Cool Cilantro Lime Pesto

There is hardly a bad time for quesadillas.  They can be the all-so-necessary in-between daytime snack, or a satisfying dinner.   Typically, you’re only option is cheese.   This is where the record starts skipping.   Sure it’s simple, but you can only enjoy processed cheese for so long.  If you are lucky, maybe you will also get some chicken thrown in there too.   But do not fret!  As the greenery in the produce section diversifies and multiplies, now is the time to add vegetables to everything – even your quesadillas.  Turn the record over; we’ve got a new song to play.

For this particular batch of quesadillas I chose portabella mushrooms for their meaty taste.  Zucchini was more of a frugally driven choice.  Besides corn, it’s one of the cheapest items in produce during the summer.   Carrots or bell peppers have potential as well.  

What really sets these quesadillas apart is the cilantro lime pesto.  I know I have been on a pesto kick recently, but for good reason.  No hassle, great taste.  It’s like buying quality products for half price!  This pesto – which I served cold – gave great contrast to the taste and texture.  So if you find yourself stalling out on plain old cheese quesadillas, there is hope.  Just add pesto, and presto!  You have yourself an old tune with a new twist. 

Cilantro Lime Pesto
1 cup cilantro, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/3 cup walnuts, chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped
Zest of one lime
Juice of one lime
Enough olive oil to reach desired texture

1.       In a blender or food processor, add all ingredients.  Blend until you have reached desired consistency. 
Makes about ¾ cup.

Mushroom and Zucchini Quesadillas
1 medium zucchini, sliced
2 cups portabella mushrooms, sliced
¼ cup olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 ½ cups Monterey, Cheddar, or Mexican blend cheese, shredded
4-6 whole wheat tortillas (depending on how you portion)
Optional: Sour cream or salsa

1.       Heat a frying pan over medium heat, until you can feel heat.  Add 2 T olive oil.
2.       Add in zucchini and mushrooms (may have to add mushrooms first, then zucchini if space does not allow both – just don’t crowd the vegetables!) Sautee for about 5-7 minutes, or until vegetables are tender but not soft.  Remove from pan.  Keep pan warm if you wish to fry your quesadilla and not bake it.
3.       Spread pesto on tortilla (or if you want to keep the pesto cold, skip this). 
4.       Layer vegetables and cheese on tortilla.  Either fry or bake your quesadilla (I did mine in the toaster oven).
5.       If you have not added the pesto, add it now.  Slice the tortilla in quarters.  Serve with sour cream salsa, more cheese, etc.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mexican Chicken Stacks

There is no such thing as Mexi-can’t food.   There is only Mexican.   Cheesy? Yes.  But there must be something about the word, “Mexican”.  Put it in front of any other type of food and it’s as if you can’t go wrong.  It reminds me of good mash-up music.  Overlay two separate things and somehow it becomes a perfect union.  How else could Mexican lasagna, Mexican burgers, Mexican ice cream, or Mexican pizza work so well? With a best friend visiting for the weekend, it was time for my own Mexican mash-up. 

I started with a slice of warm cornbread right from the oven.   This would be my cornerstone – I could build from here.  Cheese acted as the melty mortar for my Mexican stack.  Then brick-red Chili Tomato Sauce added a touch of crimson color and a fiery heat.  But I was careful to cool things down before they burned down the house.  The Lime-Grapefruit marinated chicken and even a few slices of avocado would be perfect touches.  Finally, I added the arugula, which made for a peppery, crunchy roof for this now towering Mexican Chicken Stack.   

Each bite was a symphony of flavors.  A full chorus of tastes and textures sang wildly as I dug through my stack.  It looked much like a deconstructed Taco Casserole, but tasted so much more gourmet.  I could taste every different section of the stack on its own, but all the parts worked so harmoniously with the whole.  I would recommend this to anyone who craves freshness and values making food from scratch. 

Mexican Chicken Stacks
- The layering really depends on your preference.  Mine went as follows: cornbread, cheese, tomato sauce, chicken, and arugula.  However, next time I think that I would switch the chicken and arugula and add avocado slices or sour cream to the very top.  I have also considered adding chipotle peppers to the Chili Tomato Sauce.  I have included my recipes for the Chili Tomato Sauce and the Lime-Grapefruit Chicken.  The cornbread I used was from Smitten Kitchen.  There is lots of room for variation in this recipe, so be creative!

Chili Tomato Sauce
2 T olive oil
½ cup onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced
4 T ground chili powder
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp cayenne pepper, ground
1 (28 oz) can tomatoes, diced (do not drain)
1 cup chicken broth

1.        Heat a large pot over medium heat until hot, add oil. 
2.       Add onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, or at least until onions are translucent.
3.       Add garlic; continue to sauté over medium heat for about 3 more minutes. 
4.       Add chili powder, cumin, and cayenne pepper.   Stir until aromatic – about 1 minute. 
5.       Add tomatoes and chicken broth and bring to a boil. 
6.       Reduce temperature to medium heat. 
7.       Reduce the sauce down by about half, or until the sauce thickens (about 15-20 minutes).

Lime-Grapefruit Chicken
Juice of 2 limes
Zest of 2 limes
Juice of 1 grapefruit
1 cup cilantro, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely diced
Salt and pepper
Sugar or honey, to taste
Jalapeno, finely diced
2 green onions, finely sliced
2 chicken thigh and leg quarters, bone-in

1.       Mix all ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. 
2.       Use half of the marinade to add to the chicken; reserve the other half for a sauce for the chicken after it has been cooked.
3.       Marinade chicken for at least 30 minutes.   
4.       Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350˚ F.
5.       Bake chicken until juices run clear, about 30 minutes. 
6.       Remove chicken from bone, and shredding it.
7.       In a medium sized bowl, add the reserved marinade to the cooked chicken and refrigerate, covered, until ready to eat (up to one day).   

Monday, May 7, 2012

Spicy Thai Pesto

Traditional Italian Basil Pesto is made up of an iconic family:  Italian basil (many people assume this to be the one and only type of basil), pine nuts (nearly as expensive as pearls), and Parmesan, (basically a brand in itself).  Coming from that sort of lineage, how could Italian Pesto not be delicious?  

Spicy Thai Pesto grew up on the other side of the train tracks.  Thai Basil’s licorice scent didn’t attract too many of the ladies and Thai chilies don’t necessarily play well with others.  But smoothed out by the cool nature cilantro and mint, this pesto starts out cool and fresh, packs heat.   So for those of you not wanting to bring the heat, scale down your chilies.  Many would say a pesto without cheese is sacrilege, but I didn’t find it to detract from the overall taste.  I didn’t even use peanuts this time, only because I did not have any.  But they would add body to the mix, and add filler to stretch your pesto further.  

This Spicy Thai Pesto is a smooth, cool operator at the beginning, but be careful – he bites.  Use this pesto as a spread for crackers and sandwiches, a dip for fresh veggies or bread, or a marinade for fish and chicken.  When traditional pesto is too stuffy or too overdone, Thai Basil is sure to “kick it up a notch”.   

(And it is good 'til the last the photo shows.  Couldn't capture it before I ate it all!)

Spicy Thai Pesto
1 cup thai basil, roughly chopped and packed
½ cup cilantro, roughly chopped
¼ cup mint, roughly chopped
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
2 green onions, finely sliced
4 Thai chilies, chopped
½ cup peanuts, roughly chopped (optional)
½ tsp sesame oil
1 T salt
Juice of 1 lime
¼ cup olive or canola oil

1.       Prep all ingredients. 
2.       Put ingredients into blender, food processor, or mortar.  Blend (or grind with pestle) until smooth.
3.       Eat immediately or save in fridge until later. 
Makes about 1 cup.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sweet Potato and Goat Cheese Hash with Toasted Pecans and Scallions

 Toasting nuts is easy – there is really nuttin’ to it!  Have a stovetop? Have a frying pan?  You are golden.   Simply heat a frying pan over medium high heat until hot, and then add the nuts into the pan.  No oil, no water – this is dry fry.  Stir them around periodically to avoid burning.  Ideally, they should turn golden brown.  As long as they are not black, you should be okay.  Always keep an eye on your nuts, especially when toasting.  

By now, hearing me describe how I ate an entrée sized portion of a side dish should come as no surprise.  My theory is that if you can eat enough of a side to satisfy a meal, it’s going to be one hell of a side dish.  (My other theory is that meat is expensive, so I’m saving my money for that Friday night rib-eye.)  Goat cheese is a lavish splurge, I know.  But cream cheese will give you a similarly luscious mouth-feel for half the price.  Like creamy velvet, the cream cheese generously coats the sweet potatoes without smothering them.  Sprinkling in green onions added a perky, spring-green bite.  Toasted nuts developed the texture of each fork-full, as well as adding to the overall richness.  

I could eat sweet potatoes three nights a week.  Some weeks I do.  This recipe is for those of us who love sweet potatoes and are “in-nut to win-nut”.  

Sweet Potato and Goat Cheese Hash with Toasted Pecans and Scallions

¼ cup pecans, chopped
2 T canola oil
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into ¼ inch cubes
1 garlic clove, finely diced
½ to 1 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups fresh spinach
2-3 oz goat cheese, cream cheese, or both
3 T scallions or green onions, sliced  


1.    Heat an 8 inch frying pan over medium high heat until hot.  Add pecans and toast for about 3-4 minutes.  Remove from pan; set aside.
2.    Turn heat down to medium low, add oil.  (Make sure the oil is not smoking – may need to remove pan from heat source for about 30 seconds.)
3.    Add sweet potatoes, sauté for about 8-9 minutes.
4.    Add garlic, sauté for another 2 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.
5.    Add ½ cup of water to the pan and cover.  Let potatoes simmer for about 5 more minutes (may need to add more water as they are cooking).  
6.    Once sweet potatoes are fork tender, add in spinach.  Cover pan again and wilt spinach for about 2-3 minutes.
7.    Add in goat or cream cheese; gently stir to help melt the cheese.  
8.    Garnish plate with toasted pecans and green onions.  
Makes about 2-3 cups.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Roasted Chickpeas, Broccoli Rabe, and Grape Tomatoes

 This winter I fell head over heels for a smokin’ hot oven.  Asking for nothing in return, it beautifully bronzed my vegetables, and provided heated for my house.  But spring sprang right into mid-summer this year, and suddenly I knew my days with this hottie were numbered.  Come mid-July, when I am already roasting hot myself, I won’t even want to touch it.  For now though, I’m giving my oven some more lovin’. 
Roasted vegetables really are the way to go.  I can’t say it enough about them.  Being able to enjoy potato-chip-like-crunchiness of the broccoli rabe leaves, along with the silkiness of the roasted chickpeas at the same time shouldn’t happen.  But with roasting, it does.  Roasting rewards you twice by encouraging you to eat more veggies because they are healthy and delicious.  Plus, you can keep the vibrant color and flavor that you often lose with boiling or blanching.  Simple seasonings upgrade the flavor even further.  Rosemary livened up my grape tomatoes with notes of fresh-cut pine and squeezed citrus.   The taste was earthy, yet sophisticated.
Although it was vegetarian, you could easily pair this with a grilled chicken breast or tuna steak.   Colorful, texturally diverse, and wildly tasty, I toast this roast!
Roasted Chickpeas, Broccoli Rabe, and Grape Tomatoes
1 (15 oz) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
About ½ a bunch broccoli rabe, remove stems
2/3 cup (about 5 oz) grape tomatoes, sliced in half
¼ cup olive oil
1 heaping tsp dried rosemary
½ tsp – 1 tsp Salt and pepper

1.       Preheat oven to 400˚F. 
2.       Rinse and prepare broccoli rabe and tomatoes.  Dry off broccoli rabe.
3.       Add all ingredients to a large mixing bowl. 
4.       Toss to coat completely with oil. 
5.       Arrange mixture on baking/cookie sheet.  **If possible, lay leafy parts of broccoli rabe on top of other ingredients (not touching the bottom of the sheet pan), so they will be less likely to burn.
6.       Roast for about 15-20 minutes, or until leafy greens are crispy, and chickpeas have a golden shell.
Serves about 2.

Monday, February 20, 2012

NO Mashed Potatoes: SUB Creamy Cannellini Beans

 Until recently, I didn’t believe that anyone was immune to mashed potatoes.  Unabashedly, they deny heaping dinner platters of soft, pillowy goodness I find irresistible.   How could such a quintessential comfort food be overlooked or undervalued?

Under a critical lens, I discovered the void of nutrients and healthful qualities. Mashed potatoes were mostly filler and fluff.  For the 33g of carbohydrates you take in from 1 cup of mashed potatoes, you only gain 4g of protein and 3g of fiber.  What the fluff?!  So, although it may be soul food sacrilege, I gave the classic comfort food a wholesome, healthy makeover using Cannellini beans.
In half the time, using the same food processing tools you would use to make regular mashed potatoes, you can quadruple the protein and fiber simply by substituting Cannellini beans.  With 19g of protein and 13g of fiber per 1 cup, it was worth the calories and carbs.  Plus, by adding herbs and garlic to the mix, the taste allowed you to forgive the fact that it was non-traditional. 

Beans are trendy – hummus, anyone? It’s just chickpeas! So why not try out a new creamy bean recipe.  You can have it however you like.  I ate it hot, as a side dish to grilled flank steak.  I ate it cold, as a dip for julienned strips of crunchy carrot and fresh red pepper.  I spread it on toast.  I scooped it with chips and pretzels.  There’s truly no wrong way to eat it.  So whether you’ve only got 20 minutes between classes, or you just aren’t in the mood for ‘taters tonight, this is the go-to for you!   
Mashed Cannellini Beans (Dip, Spread, Side Dish…etc.)

1 can (15oz) cannellini beans, drained (reserve liquid) and rinsed
1-2 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
½ tsp ground sage
½ tsp rosemary, finely chopped
1 T fresh parsley or cilantro, finely chopped

1.       Drain beans, reserve liquid.  Rinse beans.
2.       In food processor, combine beans, 1 T olive oil, garlic, sage, rosemary, and cilantro.  Blend on high speed.
3.       Continue to add bean liquid and/or olive oil depending on your preference of texture and taste (olive oil will impart stronger flavor than bean liquid).
4.       Blend to desired consistency.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Simple Greek Avocado Quinoa Salad

A salad made for simpletons.  Okay, so maybe the term is a bit pejorative, but you get the idea.  This recipe is as easy as chopping vegetables and following package instructions.  Yet, the final product is vibrant and delectably gourmet.  Plus, quinoa is that magically filling grain that is guilt and gluten free, so it won’t weigh you down or leave you hankering for more.
Tonight’s dinner was one of those “throw-this-together- after-work-because-I’m-starving” deals.  When I’m hungry there isn’t time to spare on being hung up on some missing ingredient from an over-the-top recipe.  So, while it is no great date meal or anything fancy to impress the folks with, it was just what I needed for dinner tonight.  
 The texture was a perfect yin yang – the crunchy quinoa contrasted with the velvetiness of the avocado made for textural bliss.  The taste was fresh and perky – tomatoes, parsley, and feta are naturally bright and lively flavors that made the salad taste light and refreshing.   I’m not a huge fan of salads when they are made up of “rabbit food”, i.e. bags of pre-chopped iceburg lettuce.  But this is the kind of salad I’ll have seconds of. 
For those days when you are on the go, this is a healthful, tasty salad that would be a perfectly packable lunch or a super side salad.
 Simple Greek Avocado Quinoa Salad
½ cup quinoa
1 avocado, ¼ inch cubes
½ cup grape tomatoes, quartered
2 green onions, sliced
2 T fresh parsley, chopped
1/3 cup feta cheese
Salt and pepper

1.       Cook quinoa according to package instructions (I use broth instead of water and add ½ a clove of garlic for more flavor).
2.       Prepare all other salad ingredients.
3.       Mix together quinoa and salad ingredients, hot or cold and enjoy! Yep, it’s that easy.