Saturday, May 28, 2011

Eating Out: Francesca's at the Promenade in Bolingbrook

On a recent trip to visit family in Chicago, I ate a lot. End of story.

Kidding. I had a lot of food to catch up on while in town, and while I didn't get to hit all of the places I miss in Chicago and the Chicago-land area, I did happen upon a few great places with my mom. See, my mom is adventurous when it comes to food, and since I take after her adventurous palate, we end up finding excellent items on any menu.

My parents had been to Francesca's once before, and my mom said it wasn't that great. Then again, if you're expecting the classic Italian American dishes to match up to your favorite Italian American restaurant in the Chicagoland region, you'll likely be disappointed. It isn't that the food is sub par, but rather that we just expect it to taste exactly like our favorite restaurant's version. That said, my mother and I ordered menu items that my dad would wrinkle his nose at, since hey, we're ladies lunching. And we can.

First up, we shared a Lenticchie e Spinaci salad, which was warm and delightfully creamy due to the goat cheese. My mom and I couldn't quite put our finger on the herb used to spice the warm lentils, but I made a mental note to try and recreate this one at home sometime....when Ian isn't home.

We also shared a Quattro Stagioni pizza with proscuitto, artichoke, mushroom and an egg that was whipped into the pizza tableside. I know a lot of people would likely be grossed out by egg (let along raw egg) on their pizza, but it's actually a very common pizza topping, and it's wonderful. Not a great dish to bring home as leftovers, as one might imagine.

Overall, we really liked the food, although I'll likely never try my favorite dishes from mom and pop Italian restaurants at a chain (Francesca's is ALL over the place in Illinois and a couple other states). There's just no comparison between chain restaurant food and the food that is a labor of love.

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

If you hand me pita, tortillas, or even bread, I will likely find something to wrap the edible utensil around. I'm just that kind of gal. While most people eat salad when handed lettuce, I prefer to cook up something tasty that I can wrap with lettuce. This also happens to be an economical meal despite the price of ground chicken (I have yet to purchase the meat grinder attachment to my mixer), as it yields quite a bit of meat filling and can be eaten throughout the week for lunch or a quick snack.

I prefer to cook up some very thin rice stick noodles instead of rice, but that's because I also happen to be the spring roll type of gal. Or, should I say, that's how I roll?

...Come on. You know it was funny.

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps (from GoodLifeEats)

1 lb. ground chicken
4 teaspoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons canola oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated on a microplane
1/2 cup chopped red onion
8 shiitake mushrooms, diced
4 peeled water chestnuts, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
4 teaspoons rice vinegar
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 head Butter lettuce
1 1/2 cups cooked jasmine rice
1 - 11 ounce can mandarin orange sections, drained

1. In a bowl, marinate the ground chicken with the soy sauce, wine, and cornstarch for 10 minutes at room temperature.

2. Heat a wok or large frying pan over high heat. When hot, add the oil, swirling to coat. Stir in the garlic, ginger, red onion. Fry for 30 seconds, until fragrant.

3. Add the ground chicken, cooking and stirring until lightly browned, about 2-4 minutes. Stir in the mushrooms, water chestnuts, rice vinegar, and oyster sauce. Simmer for 2 minutes, or until the meat is cooked through. Stir in the red bell pepper and simmer until it is tender-crisp, about 30 seconds to a minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper, if desired.

4. Assemble the lettuce wraps by spooning a heaping tablespoon of rice and filling onto each lettuce leaf. Top with 2-3 mandarin orange sections.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pasta e Ceci and How to Lower Your Grocery Bill

Ah, yes, cheap food. It seems everyone is looking for "budget meals" these days, and while technically this fits the bill, I tend to subscribe to the idea that everything can be a budget meal if you actually take the time to budget.

A day doesn't pass that I don't see some new list on the internet of ways to save money by cooking your own food, and of course they make excellent points, but they're pretty common sense, if you ask me. I can sum up my budgeting tips in five words: plan ahead and don't waste. But, of course, magazines and websites have to at least try to sell you some bits of knowledge.

Here's how I plan ahead and plan not to waste:

1. Plan your meals for the week, and do it ahead of your big weekly grocery shopping trip. Obviously, this means you'll need to plan on getting everything you will need on one shopping trip, which really isn't as daunting as it may sound. Every now and then I forget an item or two on my list (I have a habit of crossing an item off before I reach the item's grocery store location, only to be distracted by shiny things) and have to make a second trip during the week, but I find that the amount of time I spend planning in my down time more than makes up for the time I save not running back and forth to the store throughout the week when I don't have time. It's also useful to plan ahead since you can take stock of what is already in your refrigerator and not about to spoil. If you are planning on tacos, sandwiches, etc., it's helpful to know what kind of condiments you already have sitting in your fridge, and if you need a specific spice, your spice rack will thank you for thinking of it ahead of time.

2. Stock up on and keep note of your staples. Rice, pasta, grains, beans, flour, sugar, etc., are not only handy to have for those days you need to improvise, they are also the most powerful tools in your arsenal. I plan around the levels of my staples, so if I'm close to running out of pasta, I plan a pasta dish that will use up the remainder and then include a new pasta supply on my grocery list. If you are constantly buying a new staple (quinoa one week, bulgur the next; brown rice one week, jasmine rice the next) instead of using the abundance in your cupboard, you are likely wasting money. I keep a list on the fridge and check it weekly--when supplies are low, I make a note of it and buy more on my next shopping trip.

3. Plan meals that can be stretched out, and/or plan meals with ingredients you can use throughout the week. Most people know that if you buy a whole chicken and roast it, you'll have chicken for sandwiches, salads, soups and snacks throughout the week, but this rule really applies to many other ingredients. If I buy a big ol' bag of red bell peppers in bulk, I might use a couple in a stir fry one night, and then roast the remainder for a roasted red pepper pasta sauce and as a topping for panini or salads throughout the week. Likewise, if you make a batch of marinara sauce for spaghetti and meatballs, you can freeze the rest or use it on pizza or eggplant parmesan later in the week. Lentil chili one night easily becomes an awesome topping for baked sweet potatoes. Chicken and herbed rice one night becomes chicken fried rice the next.

4. Don't rely on coupons. Not only are most coupons a rip off (who really wants to buy two huge jars of crappy pasta sauce when even on sale, the homemade stuff is cheaper...and tastier). There might be sales offered in the produce department, but coupons never cover produce, and most of the crap that coupons entice you to buy or things you would likely not buy without a coupon. Stick to whole foods that you can cook and generate multiple recipes with rather than processed foods for 20 cents off.

5. Don't waste food. Obviously, eating leftovers or repurposing leftovers into other meals will help you reduce waste in your household, but there are other ways people waste than throwing out five day old chili. Those ends to the celery with leaves? Vegetable peelings that usually go into the trash? Save them in a container in the freezer, and the next time you feel the urge to make soup, reach in and grab your veggie scraps, throw in a pot, add water, salt and pepper, and your vegetable stock is ready to go. Same thing goes for beef or chicken bones--throw them in the freezer and when you have time (while you're folding laundry or doing chores over the short and crazy weekend), make beef or chicken stock. You won't have to buy packaged broth, which will cut down on your grocery bill, but it will also get you in the habit of finding creative ways to reduce waste in other areas. Even if it's using that last tiny handful of pine nuts in a pasta dish or keeping the hard rinds of Parmesan for an Italian soup or pasta sauce, you can find a way to not only save money, but also liven up your menu.

These are just the basics, and here is a basic recipe that I often refer to as "midweek staples purge" for its usage of tiny pasta, beans, and chicken stock. Since all three of the aforementioned are staples, I tend to make this a lot, and the actual price per serving comes out to around $1.33 (even cheaper if I grow the rosemary myself in the garden). Still think that $5 footlong for dinner is a bargain now?

The following recipe calls for canned garbanzo beans, but to keep the serving price super low, I usually use dried beans. I also cannot find ditalini pasta in these parts, so I usually sub with a Mexican pasta brand that carries small, star-shaped pasta.

Pasta e Ceci
(from Serious Eats)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick of celery, trimmed and finely chopped, plus celery leaves if available
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
2 14-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 1/2 ounces ditalini or other small soup pasta
A good handful of fresh basil or parsley, leaves picked and roughly chopped
Juice of half a lemon

1. Heat a large skillet or soup pot over medium-low heat, and add the olive oil. Saute the onion, garlic, celery, and celery leaves, covered, until soft and colorless, about 15 minutes.

2. Add the chickpeas and stock and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for 20 minutes until the chickpeas are soft. Remove half the chickpeas with a slotted spoon, and purée the soup in a blender, through a food mill, or with an immersion blender. Return the purée and reserved chickpeas to the pot, and add the pasta.

3. Cook until the pasta is tender, adding boiling water if necessary to loosen. Season to taste with salt and pepper and the lemon juice. Serve with parsley or basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Smoked Turkey Sausage and Leek Soup

Every year, it seems the arctic grip of winter holds on to the Palouse for a little longer than other regions of the country, so while my friends were posting pictures of themselves sunbathing in 75 degree weather in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere, I was wearing cold weather boots and scarves long enough to develop a complex. I do enjoy cold weather, and I would never, EVER trade winter for the "seasonable" (read: BORING) winter weather of the Southern states, but I am still one who enjoys all of the seasons, particularly the change of the seasons. When the seasons do not change as scheduled, I am not only disappointed, I am completely devastated.

It was with a heavy heart and a sideways glance at my spring wardrobe still packed away in the closet that I planned to make this soup, and despite my gloomy attitude after not receiving the bounty of spring on time, it really did cheer me up. Smoked sausage, leeks, celery, and carrots have rescued me from the pit of late seasonal depression, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

Sausage and Leek Soup
(From Gourmet, 2003)

4 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), halved lengthwise, then chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
1 celery rib, finely chopped
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
8 cups chicken stock or low-sodium chicken broth (64 fluid ounces)
2 medium boiling potatoes
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup thinly sliced smoked kielbasa (I used smoked turkey sausage)
2 teaspoons chopped fresh marjoram (I used rosemary)
White pepper to taste


1. Wash leeks in a large bowl of cold water, then lift out and drain well in a colander. Cook carrot and celery in 1/2 stick butter in a 4- to 5-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add leeks and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes. Add stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, 15 minutes.

2. While stock simmers, peel potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Melt remaining 1/2 stick butter in a small heavy saucepan over low heat, then add flour and cook roux, whisking, 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add 2 cups simmering stock, whisking vigorously (mixture will be thick), then whisk flour mixture into remaining stock and return to a simmer, whisking.

3. Add potatoes, kielbasa, and marjoram and simmer soup, partially covered, until potatoes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Season with salt and white pepper.

The Perfect Roast Beef and Gravy

There are few greater culinary feats than mastering the medium rare (or medium) roast beef. I know people who are terrified of roast beef, but once you get the hang of it (and learn to take kitchen catastrophes in stride), this is an impressive tool in any cook's arsenal.

I prefer using a round roast, but it's equally easy to prepare using a sirloin tip or rump roast. Whatever cut you use, note that all cuts cook differently in the oven, so you'll need to rely on your handy thermometer to tell if the roast has reached the desired temperature.

Another tip to note is that I do not use a roasting pan for my roast beef, so I instead plop the whole roast, fat side up, directly into the oven on the rack. All the sites I've read claim that this creates convection in the oven, but I prefer just to say that it creates deliciousness. I place the roasting pan below the roast so the drippings melt over the meat and bathe it in deliciousness. Once the roast is finished, you'll have drippings for gravy in the pan and a perfectly cooked roast to boot.

Roast Beef and Gravy

4 lb. roast (sirloin tip, rump, or round)
2 cloves garlic, cut into thin slivers
Salt and pepper
Oil (I prefer olive oil)
1-1/2 cups beef broth
2-3 tablespoons cornstarch

1. Take the roast of the fridge at least one hour before you plan to cook it. It should be at room temperature before you prepare it.
2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Make incisions around the roast the size of the garlic slivers and insert each into the roast. Sprinkle the roast with salt and pepper, and rub with oil (just enough to coat).
3. Place the roast directly on the middle rack of the oven, with a roasting pan below to catch the drippings.
4. Cook the roast for 1/2 hour at 375 degrees, and then turn the oven down to 225 degrees for around 2 hours, or until the roast reaches the internal temperature of 135 degrees. Let the roast stand for at least 20 minutes before carving.
5. While the roast is resting, place the roasting pan on the stove over medium heat. Stir a couple of tablespoons into a bit of beef broth until fully combined, and add the mixture along with the rest of the beef broth into the roasting pan. Stir the gravy until thickened, and taste for salt and pepper.

Et voilà!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Eggplant Parmesan

I'm in love with eggplant parmesan, but it happens to be one of the richest foods that I always regret eating after the fact. Particularly when I order the dish in a restaurant, my hands and feet bloat up from all the salt added to the eggplant and I end up feeling miserable and vowing to never again order it.

Then there's this Martha Stewart recipe that allows me to wear the same size clothing the next day, and I don't even have to use soap and water to get my wedding ring off at the end of the day. I always serve this with farfalle tossed with a little of the homemade marinara (homemade marinara is best, in my opinion--that store bought jarred sauce just doesn't hold a candle to the fresh taste of a fresh marinara that you can make huge, cost-effective batches of).

Eggplant Parmesan
From Martha Stewart

1 large eggplant (2 pounds), sliced 1/2 inch thick crosswise
1 tablespoon olive oil
Coarse salt and ground pepper
1 cup fat-free (skim) milk
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup homemade or best-quality store-bought marinara sauce
1/2 cup grated part-skim mozzarella
1/3 cup grated Parmesan

1.Preheat oven to 450 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. Arrange eggplant on two rimmed baking sheets. Brush eggplant on both sides with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake until golden brown and very tender, 20 to 25 minutes, turning slices and rotating sheets halfway through.

2. Meanwhile, make sauce: Off heat, in a medium saucepan, whisk together 1/4 cup milk, flour, and garlic. Gradually whisk in remaining 3/4 cup milk and 1/2 cup marinara sauce. Bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, and cook until pink sauce has thickened, 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Spread cup marinara sauce in the bottom of a shallow 2-quart baking dish. Alternate layers of baked eggplant with pink sauce. Dollop with remaining cup marinara sauce. Sprinkle with mozzarella and Parmesan. Bake on upper rack until browned and bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tomato and Feta Baked Shrimp Pasta

What a crazy month. First, the inevitable end of the semester grading tornado pretty much knocked out any available free time I had, and then the beginning of summer session knocked out any chance I had of returning to some level of sanity.

In addition....I'M MOVING! Yes, I'm leaving the Palouse, headed back to the midwest, and am now firmly entrenched in the very exciting but very time consuming process of setting up housing and wrapping up loose ends here in Pullman. Needless to say, I've been making a lot of quick and easy dishes for dinner.

Quick and easy is exactly what this shrimp and feta bake is, and if you happen to have vegetable orzo on hand, it can also be colorful. I imagine you could also substitute Israeli couscous, which I'm trying next time. Serve it with a spinach salad or some warm, crusty bread for a light and healthy weeknight meal.

Tomato and Feta Baked Shrimp Pasta
From Closetcooking

1/2 cup orzo (I used a whole wheat orzo)
1 tablespoon oil
1 onion (chopped)
2 cloves garlic(chopped)
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups tomatoes (peeled and chopped)
1 teaspoon oregano
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh herbs (chopped, parsley, basil, dill, mint, etc.)
2 green onions (sliced)
1/2 pound shrimp (peeled and deviened)
1/2 cup feta (crumbled)

1. Cook the orzo until al dente.
2. Heat the oil in a pan.
3. Add the onion and saute until soft, about 5 minutes.
4. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
5. Add the white wine, tomato and oregano and simmer until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes.
6. Remove from heat and stir in the herbs and green onions.
7. Mix the sauce, orzo and shrimp, place in a baking dish topped and top with the feta.
8. Bake in a preheated 425F oven until the shrimp is cooked and the sauce is bubbly, about 10-15 minutes.