Sausage and Pepper Casserole

My neighbor had a health issue with her mom last night and I thought that the nicest thing I could do for her would be to make dinner and dessert for them tonight.  I know her mom loves sweets, so I had to make sure to have some sort of dessert included, so I made a platter of chocolate chip cookies, since I already had the dough in the fridge… the question was now “what do I make for dinner”?

I looked through my freezer and found a package of turkey kielbasa and a half package of bacon, so that became the base of my recipe.  Since I also had some green peppers and an onion in the crisper, I decided to make a turn on a “sausage and pepper sandwich” and add some linguine and a creamy cheese sauce to pull it all together.  Here’s how I went about making dinner. NOTE: Remember that I was making two dinners for two people each, so these could have easily been made into a single 9×11 casserole instead of two individual 9″ round casseroles.

I crisped up the half package of bacon and then removed the bacon to a plate, leaving the bacon drippings in the saute pan.  I diced one package of turkey kielbasa and crisped that up in the saute pan as well before removing that to a plate. I sliced one green pepper and half a large onion and sauteed these in the bacon grease until softened.  While cooking all these individual pieces, I cooked 3/4 package of linguine (broken in half) until just al dente, then drained the pasta, saving some of the water in case I needed it for the sauce that would top the entire casserole.Sausage&PepperCasserole

I then assembled the casseroles, placing a little of the bacon and half the kielbasa and half the vegetables on top before adding half the pasta.  Once this was done, I was able to turn my attention to the sauce.  I wanted something that was creamy and slightly cheesy but didn’t just want to throw cheese on top of the pasta and hope it melted correctly.

I started the sauce by simmering 2T butter and 2T flour together to make a roux.  I then added some white wine (using chardonnay was my choice this time… crisp and clean) and chicken stock to start a great tasting sauce.  To make the taste unique to this particular dish, I added half a can of cream of mushroom soup (leftover from Christmas dinner), some parmesan cheese and some cheddar cheese for creaminess and a few dashes of Worchestershire sauce for flavor.  Once the sauce tasted “right” (you HAVE to be willing to taste your sauces during the cooking phase so they balance out once they’re added to a dish), I poured half over each casserole and topped each with a sprinkling of leftover bacon.

I have no idea if my neighbors will enjoy this casserole, but I hope they feel the love that comes from wanting to do something nice for others in times of stress.  Karma is a tricky thing… but I believe that if you always reach out to others in a positive way and from a place of kindness and love, that same thing will come back to you tenfold.  I’m not expecting them to do anything in return…. I just know that they shouldn’t have to worry about feeding their family when they’re facing a difficult time.

May we all approach life in this manner… give when you can and your life will be made better for the effort.

Happy New Year Blessings to you all, my friends.  Wishing you health and happiness as 2015 begins!

Starter Recipe: Easy Red Sauce

When you’re cooking, it’s always nice to have a great basic recipe for an easy pasta sauce in your arsenal.  Something that you can pull together with items from your pantry can make you feel prepared to whip up a great dinner any night of the week.  This is that sort of a recipe… it’s foolproof, yet easy to adapt to each family’s favorite tastes, which makes it a perfect “starter recipe” to have on hand.EasyRedSauce (1)

Ingredients:

  • 1-28oz can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1 can tomato paste (you’ll only need an amount the size of your thumb)
  • Seasonings (I like Italian Seasonings, Basil, and Oregano, as well as salt & pepper)
  • Red wine (Use as much or as little as you like – I used a dry red that I had in the fridge)
  • Balsamic Vinegar (One of my favorite ingredients to use to punch up the flavor)
  • Brown Sugar (I used 2 spoons-worth, but use as much or as little as you like)

In a medium saucepan, blend the entire can of crushed tomatoes, a thumb-worth of tomato paste, the seasonings and red wine.  Once this mixture simmers for a bit, add a bit of the vinegar and the brown sugar… make sure to taste your pasta sauce as it cooks and adjust the seasonings as needed.

For the latest dinner, I roasted a few turkey meatballs and added them to the sauce before dinner.  I served the meatballs and sauce on a bed of cooked thin spaghetti and it was a huge hit… everyone soaked up the last bits of sauce with pieces of bread, which is a positive sign in our house.

Hope you enjoy making this sauce for your own family… feel free to adjust and alter ingredients to make this sauce your own!

Chicken and Snow Pea Stir-fry

As promised via Instagram, I am posting my recipe for a delicious and amazingly simple dinner of chicken tenders, snow peas, and brown rice.  I have gotten this dinner down to a quick and easy “go-to” for our family and have altered it too many times to count.  I am sharing this basic version so you, dear reader, have a place from which to “jump off” and create something that will appeal to the individual tastes of your own families… so let’s get to it!ChickenSnowPeas&Chard

I started with one package of chicken tenders and most of a bag of snow peas.  I cut each of the tenders into bite-size pieces and then added salt, pepper, and parsley before setting the chicken aside for a few minutes.

In a large skillet, I melted a bit of coconut oil on medium-high heat and browned half a diced onion,  Once the onion was browned, I added the chicken tender pieces and gave them time to cook thoroughly before adding the sauce.  I created the sauce by pouring about a cup of Chardonnay (I used Bread and Butter Chardonnay, because that was what I had in my fridge… feel free to use whatever white wine you have or prefer) into a bowl, adding a large glug of a pre-made sweet and savory sauce from Sam’s Club that we had in the fridge, along with a “thumb-size” amount of cream cheese, and pouring that into the skillet.  I added the snow peas and stirred everything together until the cream cheese had melted into the sauce and the peas had a chance to cook a bit.  I then served the stir-fry over a bed of brown rice.  I should also note that I added a bit of the same “sweet and savory sauce” into the rice when it was cooking, so there was some syncing of the flavors between the stir-fry and the rice.

Honestly, this is all I did to make dinner last night.  I have made variations in which I substitute the sweet and savory sauce with some pre-made housin sauce but I’ve also done the same thing using wine, the juice of a lemon, and some light-colored jam (I like apricot, peach, or fig preserves).  Play around with this recipe on your own and find your favorite version to serve.  It’s amazing how fresh and wonderful things taste when you play with ingredients!

Recipe: Chicken Pie

My new neighbors were driving home from NC on Monday and I knew they were going to be stressed, so I decided to make dinner for them, while making dinner for us at the same time.  Since I decided to make a chicken pie, it was extremely easy for me to double ingredients and make two dinners at the same time.  This is one of my favorite things to make, so I hope you’ll try this recipe some day… it’s a great comfort meal with lots of old-home appeal.ChickenWinePie

I started with one rotisserie chicken that I bought from the grocery store.  I put the chicken and all its juices into a large stock pot, added water up to the halfway point of the bird, then set the pot to simmer on medium low for about a half hour.  While it was cooking, I threw in some leftover veggies that I had in the fridge (three stems of broccoli without the crowns and six chunks of celery) and allowed them to perfume the water until it became stock.  NOTE: This is my favorite way to make stock… although I usually use carrots, celery, and onion, this turns plain water into something you can use in a myriad of ways.

Once the chicken had cooked in the liquid long enough to be easy to shred, I removed the meat and vegetables to a colander (I used a set of tongs and the chicken fell apart nicely as I removed it from the pot). I then strained the stock through the same colander and into a bowl big enough to hold all the stock so I could use the same pot to start making the chicken pie sauce.

To make the sauce, I started with four Tablespoons of margarine and/or butter and four Tablespoons of flour and whisked them together over medium heat until the fat had time to cook the “raw” taste out of the flour. NOTE: Remember, we’re making enough sauce for two chicken pies.  I then added about one cup of chardonnay white wine (Use whatever wine you prefer) and whisked the sauce to incorporate the wine.  It was still very stiff at this point, so I added an equal amount (equal parts wine to chicken stock) of the reserved chicken stock to the sauce and whisked that until things started looking like a “sauce”.  Feel free to add more wine or stock to get the sauce to the consistency you want for your chicken pie.  I actually went back and added more of both the wine *and* stock, but made the sauce too thin.  TO FIX THIS, I used 1/4 cup of reserved stock and 2 teaspoons of cornstarch to create a slurry and added it to the sauce, whisking to make sure not to create any lumps.  Once I had enough of the thickened sauce, I needed to season it before adding it to the dish.  I used freshly ground pepper, some Herbes de Provence, some thyme (I like these two seasonings with chicken, but feel free to use your own favorites), and a squirt of dijon mustard.  I whisked everything together and then let it cook slightly, while I put the chicken pies together.  NOTE:  I went into greater detail in a previous post, entitled “How to make a sauce” on this blog, so feel free to open another tab and use those directions if they seem clearer to you.  I didn’t use any cheese in this sauce, as I did in the previous post, but the method is still the same.

To assemble the chicken pies, I picked and shredded half of the chicken into two separate casserole dishes.  I then drained two cans of mixed vegetables (this usually includes squares of carrots, potatoes, beans, and corn) and poured a can of the vegetables over the chicken in each dish.  NOTE: Since I had cooked extra celery and the broccoli stems, I sliced and added these as well, although they weren’t necessary. I then spooned the sauce evenly over both dishes to finish off the inside of the chicken pies.  NOTE:  I wasn’t sure if my neighbors were watching their salt intake, but knew that I would need to add a little more “umph” to our sauce, so I added a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce to the sauce in our dish.  This isn’t necessary either, but it’s a flavor I know we like.  

For the topping of the chicken pie, you can go in a variety of directions.  For this version, I used a box of Puff Pastry dough. I allowed the dough to thaw for 15-20 minutes, then laid the dough on top of the dish, folding the edges over and brushing everything with an egg wash (mixture of egg and water) to make a nice crust.  I also sprinkled our dish with some garlic salt, since that’s a favorite in our house.  NOTE:  Be sure to make 3-4 slits in the top of the pie to allow steam to escape during the cooking process.

To bake these beauties, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and pop the chicken pie into the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until you see bubbling sauce coming up through the edges of the slits.  NOTE:  You need to cook Puff Pastry version at a higher temperature.  You can decrease the oven temp to 375 degrees if using another topping of choice.  Remove the chicken pie from the oven and let it rest for a few minutes before serving so no one burns their mouth on food that is, to quote my husband, “hotter than the sun”.

NOTE:  If you don’t want to use Puff Pastry dough for your topping, you can use a can of biscuit dough, a pie crust, or some homemade Bisquick topping.  Whatever you choose, make sure you cook the dish long enough to allow the topping to cook thoroughly.  

I do hope you’ll try this recipe sometime soon.  As the Fall approaches and the weather gets cooler, this meal is a staple in our house.  It always reminds me of my childhood and never fails to bring a smile to my face.  May this become a staple in your home as you create those same memories for your own families.  Enjoy!

How to make a sauce… and a bonus recipe

Have you ever been frustrated when trying to make a sauce (or even a simple gravy) for dinner?  Here’s a basic sauce recipe that you can personalize to fit any meal… and it’s easy!  I’m also including a mash-up of step-by-step photos so you get a feel for how each stage should look… hopefully that will help as you create your own masterpiece.

Start with butter, olive oil, and flour.  I typically will start with a 1:1 ratio of fat to flour, so if I’m using one tablespoon of butter and one tablespoon of oil, I’ll use 2 tablespoons of flour.  Note:  Much of this is driven by the amount of sauce you want to make, so if you’re hoping for a large amount of sauce for a casserole, feel free to double these amounts.   Saute’ your fat/flour in a pan until it’s bubbling and gets just a slight bit “toasty” looking… you’re making a simple roux to start this sauce.  (This is the first photo I’ve included in the upper left corner.)

SauceBasics

Once you’ve given the flour some time to cook, you’ll begin adding your liquids.  I like start by adding wine first.  I use whichever wine I feel will go nicely with the end product.  I used James River Cellars’ Montpelier (a Cabernet Franc “Blanc”, if you will) and thought it paired well with the cheese I was using.  (The second photo, below the first shot)  Feel free to use red wine if you’re making a sauce for something heartier than chicken or fish.  I always use a whisk and make sure to thoroughly incorporate the liquid into the sauce at each point before moving on to the next.  How much wine you add is entirely up to you.  I like to add about a cup at the beginning (use your morning coffee cup if you’d rather not get another thing dirty).  Whisk the wine into the sauce and as it starts to tighten up, you’ll begin to recognize when to add more liquid.

After adding wine, I like to then add stock to my sauce.  I try to always have some chicken stock (or broth) in the fridge but feel free to use whatever flavor you feel will best fit the rest of the meal.  When taking the photos for this post, I was making a sauce for my Chicken Divan casserole, so I used chicken stock.  If I were making a sauce to top a steak or piece of beef, I would have used beef stock.  Try to always keep your final product in mind while making segments of a meal so that everything coordinates nicely.

At this point, you’ve got a lovely, smooth gravy.  Add some Worchestershire sauce, liquid smoke, or a dash of Liquid Aminos and you’ll have a great way to bring some pizzazz to your meal.  Since I was making a sauce for a casserole, I needed more “heft” to this sauce and decided to add 4oz of grated cheese.  I used a Monetary Jack cheese to pair with the Montpelier wine I used earlier, but sharp cheddar would pair nicely with a big red wine and a mild colby or creamy goat cheese can accent the crisp taste of a bright Chardonnay or Vidal Blanc.  Choose your favorite and make the sauce your own!

Once the cheese is incorporated, and the sauce is smooth and creamy, add your spices at the last moment.  Again, I was making a Chicken Divan, so I chose to add a palmful of curry powder and some dried parsley.  This is another opportunity to personalize your sauce and make it taste the way *you* want.   Allow the sauce to cook for a moment, whisking as you go, and use it however you like.  In this case, I poured the sauce over a casserole of chicken and broccoli – it was the perfect piece to pull all the flavors together.  YUM!

Now, I *DID* promise you a “bonus recipe”… here it is:  Buttered Bread Crumbs!

ButteredBreadCrumbs

I’ll admit that “Buttered Bread Crumbs” doesn’t sound like much of a bonus, but if you’ve never made this wonderful topping for a casserole, you have no idea what you’re missing.

I reused the pan in which I had just made the curry sauce and warmed some olive oil, butter, garlic, and salt.  I simmered this mixture a bit while I cubed up four potato rolls that I had on hand.  I have made this using chiabatta bread… homemade bread… leftover rolls… I’ve even used a few slices of a simple white bread.  Use what you have on hand… this is a topping and meant to be a way to use leftover loaves of bread.  No matter what you use, it’s a really tasty addition.

Once your butter mixture is warm and your bread is cubed, add the two together and toss them over medium heat until they pick up some crispy edges.  They don’t have to be entirely cooked… they’ll toast up in the oven after you put them on top of the casserole.  NOTE: If you’re making bread crumbs for a salad, you *will* want to toast them long enough to get them crispy on all sides.

Simple, right?  I adore this bread crumb topping… it’s something from my childhood that brings back wonderful memories of comfort foods and family meals.  I hope you enjoy trying this topping for your family casseroles!

Helpful hint:  If you’re reheating a casserole, you can add some fresh buttered bread crumbs to the top and toast it in the oven before serving… no one will guess that you’re serving leftovers!

Enjoy!

Recipe: Wine’d Up Kale Pesto

I have a college friend who has a Paleo-focused blog that I just love.  If this sounds like something interesting to you, I would encourage you to check out her blog (MomUncorked) as she has lots of recipes, helpful hints, and thoughts on how and why to follow this lifestyle.  While this plan is not for me, I really enjoy looking through her recipes and playing with them until they become something that would better fit my family’s eating habits.

Kale Pesto

This recipe is a mash-up of a pesto recipe that my niece posted on her blog (Peanut Butter Fingers) and one that my Paleo-friend has created on her blog.  It’s a Kale Pesto that incorporates wine… James River Cellars’ Hanover White Wine to be exact.  If you don’t have access to this lovely sweet white wine, I would suggest trying a Vidal Blanc or even a Sauvignon Blanc that has a bit of residual sugar.  You don’t want to use something as sweet or bubbly as a Moscato, but a little sugar isn’t a bad thing against the bitter taste of the raw kale in this recipe.

Enough of the lead in…. let me tell you how I made this fun recipe, using actual measurements, no less!.  Using my small food processor, I popped a large handful of chopped kale into the bowl, along with a few crushed garlic cloves1/4 cup sunflower seeds, 1/4 cup walnuts, and 1/8 cup pine nuts and began processing everything to a fine crush.  When it began whirling around, there didn’t look to be enough kale, so I added another small handful and continued to process the pesto.   I alternated between using the pulse setting and the continual setting until all the kale and the nuts seemed uniformly crushed.

Once the pesto started looking like… well… pesto, I turned the machine to the “on” position and slowly drizzled equal amounts of olive oil and Hanover White wine until the pesto was smooth and sauce-like.  I started with the olive oil, added wine, then went back to olive oil and finished with some wine.  It was definitely a “Using the Force” sort of situation and I stopped to taste-test before deciding it was finished.  I also added some freshly ground salt and pepper, seasoning the pesto to my preferred taste.

This recipe is definitely one that I will continue to keep in my fridge. It’s just sooo versatile!  I’ve used it as a sandwich condiment (fabulous on a BLT or even a simple tomato sandwich), I’ve added it to pasta (with a little warm cooking liquid, it softens and adds so much to a side dish), and even added some cream instead of cooking liquid for a creamier pesto dish with chicken or shrimp that is really yummy.   While kale is not my first choice for a green vegetable, it has some amazingly great dietary stats that make it something worth adding to your diet if you are willing.

Want an added bit of knowledge?  If you massage your kale leaves before using them, you can remove some of the bitterness of this hearty green.  Don’t believe me?  Read this great article from the Huffington Post that explains the why, what, how, and “really??” of this cool trick.

I hope you’ll consider trying this pesto recipe… with all the benefits out there about kale, it’s worth a whirl!

“Whirl”… get it?

Have a great and healthy day!

Recipe: Deconstructed Shepherd’s Pie

My younger son came home from college this past weekend and, as luck would have it, I was working on Sunday… so I decided to make an easy dinner in the crockpot that we could use for a day or two.

For Dinner #1, I put a sliced onion, two fairly large pot roasts (on BIG sale at my local grocery store), salt, pepper, and a half bottle of James River Cellars’ Rad Red wine into my crock pot.  I then turned the thing on as low and slow as it would go and let it cook the entire time I was at work.  **It’s ok, really…I was only working a 6 hour shift.

When I got home, there wasn’t much more I had to do before dinner was ready.  I ladled out all the liquid into a fridge-friendly container (this stuff is gold… like a beef consume that I didn’t have to babysit?  Awesome!) and set about shredding the beef for sandwiches.  I’d already bought rolls and M sweetly went out and picked up some BBQ sauce (would have sworn we had some in the house), so this weekend dinner was a quick fix for everyone.

For Dinner #2, I started with 2 Tablespoons of flour and 2 Tablespoons of margarine.  Once the margarine was meltDeconstructed Shepherd's Pie2ed and the flour was bubbling away, I began to add some of the reserved beef consume that I’d saved from Dinner #1.  I added enough, slowly to allow things to gel nicely, until I had a good amount of sauce.  I also added a splash of worchestershire sauce and some Viognier white wine to add some depth to the sauce.   I could have eaten this with a spoon… turned into such a yummy gravy.

While playing with the sauce, I made a small, quick batch of mashed potatoes.  You could certainly use instant mashed potatoes if you’d prefer, but making homemade seems easier to me (as long as I have a little time).   When the potatoes were “mash-able”, I added some milk, margarine, and a half teaspoon of horseradish before mashing them for the topping and setting them aside.

Into the gravy went a nice amount of the shredded beef from Dinner #1.  I stirred it into the sauce and then sprinkled frozen peas on top everything.  Since the peas were frozen, I stirred them into the mixture and then topped everything with the homemade mashed potatoes and a liberal dash of paprika (for color).  It looked so tasty!

Your Shepherd’s Pie is now made… and just needs to bake a bit.  I popped the entire skillet into the oven and added a package of frozen biscuits, using the time and temperature needed to bake the bread.  Once everything was done, I plated dinner for the four of us and sat down to eat… simple, filling, and really comforting.

There’s something so great about being able to turn out an old-time dinner on a “new age” time schedule.  If you have a favorite from your childhood, there’s nothing better (IMHO) than being able to create it using some current cooking tips.  I love coming home to a house that smells of something baking in the oven.  It makes me incredibly happy to create meals for my family that remind me of when I was a child.  This dinner was one of those meals.

I hope you’ll try something like this for yourself… and may the warmth and comfort of “home” bring you a few moments of peace in an otherwise hectic day.