Cool as a frozen pea

A gorgeous opalescent bowl at 75% off.A never-worn pair of Louboutin pumps in size 10 at a consignment store.

A pot of hydrangeas that are a little past their prime; and half price.

A rotisserie chicken from Costco.All items bought in the heat of the moment because they’re pretty and inexpensive.  Then when you get each one home, you think, “What now?”.

Last week I had the ‘what now?’ moment with a rotisserie chicken.  But, there wasn’t any real stress in the question, because it was, in fact, a roasted chicken.  And having a couple zip-top bags of cooked chicken is never a bad thing.

I could make soup.Avgolemono is a Greek chicken soup with a hit of lemon.  Heat up three or four cups of chicken stock, with a quarter cup of orzo in it.  Combine 3 eggs and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.  Whisk in a little hot soup to the eggs to raise the temp, then pour it all back into the stock.  Cook on medium-low until the orzo’s cooked.  To serve; put some shredded chicken in the bottom of the bowl, then add a cup of the soup.    Sprinkle a little fresh parsley on top, and you’ve got soup for four.

But, it’s been too hot for soup lately.

I could make open-faced chicken sandwiches.

Get some chewy sourdough and lay down some chicken meat and put crispy bacon on top.  Cover with hoop cheese.  Then melt the cheese under the broiler.

But I wasn’t in the mood for sandwiches, no matter how tasty they may be.

I could make tacos.Heat up Chubby’s guacatillo and stir in some chicken.  Pick up some fresh tortillas at your local tortilleria (tortilla bakery), and heat them in a dry skillet.  Layer the saucy chicken on tortillas and top with cilantro and white onion.

But it was Tuesday, and my local tortilleria is closed on Tuesday.

I could make chicken Alfredo.

It’s actually very simple.  Just sauté four or five minced cloves of garlic in a tablespoon of butter.  When the whole house is redolent of garlic, add two cups of heavy cream and 1/8 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg.  Bring it to a boil and let it go until it’s cooked down, thick, and creamy.  While the cream reduces, cook some ridged pasta a couple minutes less than it says on the box.  When the sauce is done, stir in a quarter cup of grated Parmesan.  Place the par-cooked pasta in the sauce and let it finish cooking.  Add a couple cups of bite-size chicken and serve with a green salad.But, it’s bathing suit season.

I could make a cool pasta salad.

Which is what I did.Oh, and that bowl, the flowers, and those shoes?Put some water in the bowl and float some hydrangea flowers in it.  They’ll be a beautiful decoration at your cocktail party where you’ll show off your fabulicious shoes.

Thanks for your time.

Pantry chicken & pasta salad

Dressing:pasta dressing1 ½ cups mayonnaise

1 teaspoon horseradish

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 teaspoons oil from sun dried tomatoes

1 teaspoon olive oil

½ teaspoon honey

Very hot water

Salt & pepper

2 or 3 tablespoons snipped Chinese or regular chives, or scallions,

very thinly sliced on the bias.

At least 2 hours or up to 24 hours before service:

Whisk together first 6 ingredients.  Whisk in hot water until dressing’s about the consistency of pancake batter.

Season, taste, and season again until it’s right.

Stir in chives.

Salad:

chicken pasta salad

8 ounces ridged pasta

1 ½ cup frozen baby peas, thawed

¼ cup sundried tomatoes, packed in oil, drained, rinsed, and chopped

2 or 3 big handfuls of baby spinach

2-3 cups rotisserie chicken, cut into bite-size chunks.

6 slices of bacon, cooked until very crispy

Put cut-up sun dried tomatoes into bottom of colander.  Cook pasta according to directions in very heavily salted water.  When finished, pour into colander over tomatoes.  Let cool.

Into large bowl, place pasta, peas, sundried tomatoes, spinach, and chicken.  Toss with enough dressing to give everything a thin coat.

Plate salad, then top with one slice of crumbled bacon.  Serves 6.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Snafu

So you’ve got a game plan for dinner, you get started in the kitchen, and you run into a couple of roadblocks.What do you do?

What.Do.You.Do?

It kinda depends on the roadblocks.

My troubles, luckily, were fixable.  One was of my own making, and one was a little bit my fault, but mostly microbiology.

Let me start back at the beginning.I decided to invent a new pasta bake.  It would be orzo, in an asparagus pesto cream sauce, with peas and spinach, all covered in parmesan breadcrumbs.

I cooked the orzo until it wasn’t quite al dente.

While the orzo was cooking I made a basic cream sauce.

Classic Béchamel

bechamel

¼ cup butter

¼ cup flour

2 cups 2% milk

Salt & pepper

Put a saucepan on medium.  Melt butter and whisk in flour; this is a roux.  Let cook for a couple of minutes, then pour in milk.  Whisk constantly until it thickens and comes to a boil.  Season, taste, and season again.

White sauce is one of the ‘mother’ sauces in classic French cooking.  For the casserole I was making, I stirred in ¼ cup of grated Parmesan, a couple tablespoons of snipped Chinese chives, and 10 good gratings of nutmeg.

When I made the roux, I was afraid I’d made too much, so I discarded a little.  Then of course, I realized I actually needed it thinner so that the finished dish wasn’t dry.

Oops—snafu #1.

I was planning to put fresh spinach into the bake.  I’d wilt it in the microwave, squeeze out the water, then chop it.  Instead, I put four big handfuls of raw spinach into the hot béchamel.  This thinned the sauce. Next, I planned on adding half of a jar of asparagus pesto which I had in the fridge.  I unscrewed the lid and looked inside.  Right on top was a big ole spot of mold. I guess I’d had it for much longer than I thought.

Oops—snafu #2.

After some regret and self-recrimination, I grabbed my jar of preserved lemons and a pack of fresh dill from the produce drawer.  I diced up a few lemon slices and chopped about a tablespoon of dill.  I stirred them into my sauce.  This approximated the slightly sour herbaceousness.

lemon-dill

Green orzo bake

green-orzo-bake1 batch béchamel, adjusted as above

1 cup frozen peas, unthawed

½ pound orzo, undercooked by about 2 minutes

3 slices multigrain bread, toasted, and ground in food processor

¼ cup grated Parmesan, in addition to the cheese in the sauce

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease an 8X8 casserole dish.  Mix together the first three ingredients and pour into dish, smoothing the top.

Mix together breadcrumbs, cheese, and olive oil.  Sprinkle over top.

Bake for 45 minutes, spinning dish halfway through baking.  Let stand for 10 minutes after removing from oven.  Serves 4-6.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple nights later we had the leftovers.  I added ½ cup more milk, and a cup of some grilled chicken breast I’d picked up at Trader Joe’s.  I stirred it all together, but even without the crispy breadcrumbs on top it was pretty tasty.

Whenever I make a new recipe, I always warn Petey that there’s a possibility we will instead be dining on peanut butter and jelly.

This time, I was able to pull out a “W” for this meal; which is great, because, you know, I’m not too sure that Petey even likes PBJ.

I’ll bet if an eighteen-year-old Swedish bikini model served him this, he’d give up pork chops for this PBJ.

Thanks for your time.

 

Kitchen prestidigitation

I’m not sure what will happen.

The Kid no longer eats orzo.  “It’s a texture thing,” my child insists.

I, on the other hand, love the rice-shaped pasta.  It works really well with a light dressing, and smaller pieces of veggies and proteins.  For some reason I equate it to the spring, with lemon, asparagus, and ramps.

By disliking orzo, The Kid has ended up on the horns of a dilemma.  I recently discovered an orzo recipe that will send my spawn into vapors of indecision.

For while the recipe is a one-pot, no strain pasta, which is pretty darn cool, that pasta is orzo, which usually given no love.

The other dilemma that may change everything is the author of the recipe.  It is Melissa D’Arabian, winner of Food Network’s Next Network star.

The year that Melissa competed, we watched every episode, and Melissa caught our eye.   She wasn’t loud or a drama queen, in fact she seemed to have no time for crazy.

What riveted us to the screen was her quiet confidence.

In that she reminded us of JJ Redick.  When he goes up for a shot, in his mind, of course he’ll make it; he’s never missed.  It’s not delusion or ego-driven arrogance, it’s more like a child’s belief in the good in himself—in his mind he’s never missed a basket, so he launches the ball with nothing but complete, untainted optimism.  The “Yips” are incomprehensible to him.  It would be like trying to explain the concept of electrical engineering to a gerbil.

My round ball crush, JJ Redick.

Melissa was like that.  She had knowledge, experience and a stack of awesome, no-fail recipes tall enough to reach the top shelf.  Above all she possessed a quiet form of supreme confidence.  Doubt didn’t seem to be in her vocabulary.

But back to the orzo.  This recipe is like a ski lodge in the summer—it’s very accommodating.  You can add anything to this dish; protein, different types of veg, various nuts.

Petey and I love this, but The Kid has not yet had an opportunity to try it.

Melissa’s Lemon Thyme Orzo (by way of Debbie)

lemon thyme orzoIngredients

2 ½ cups chicken or vegetable stock

½ cup white wine

1 tablespoon olive oil

2-3 garlic cloves, minced

1 cup orzo

½ lemon, zested + 2 tablespoons juice

2 tablespoons fresh chopped thyme leaves

2 teaspoons fresh minced rosemary

1 cup frozen peas

1/3 cup shredded Parmesan

Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

¼-½ cup crumbled crispy bacon (optional)

Pea shoots

Heat large skillet on medium and add olive oil.  Stir in garlic and rosemary.  When fragrant, add orzo and stir constantly until it’s lightly toasted.  Deglaze with wine.  Add stock, and simmer on medium until most of the liquid has been absorbed, stirring occasionally, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in lemon zest, juice, thyme, peas, and cheese. Season with salt and pepper to taste, top with crispy bacon, a handful of pea shoots, and transfer to a serving bowl.  Serves 4.

Variations (Stir these in at the end of cooking, off the heat):

Instead of peas, use asparagus.  Or roasted broccoli and thinly sliced sun-dried tomatoes.

Drop the peas and add snipped Chinese chives and halved grape tomatoes you’ve blistered in a very hot skillet with 1 teaspoon olive oil.

Nix the pea shoots, and stir in 2 cups raw baby spinach.

Mix in salad shrimp or shredded rotisserie chicken.

Stir soft cheese (like brie or mascarpone) into pasta.

I watch what some people might consider way too much food television (but it’s purely for research purposes).  There are cooks that I love, some that are ok, but not my favorites, and a few that when they appear, I rush to change the channel.  Some hosts are very reliable sources for recipes, with many of their dishes recreated in my kitchen; most were big hits; a few, embarrassing flops.

But a Melissa D’Arabian recipe has never resulted in anything but success, yummy food, and kudos from family.  So much so, that at our house we refer to her as “Magic Melissa”.

Yup, that’s me in the kitchen…

I guess we’ll just have to see if she can cast a spell and make The Kid enjoy orzo.

Thanks for your time.

Get your mojo running

For the last few weeks, this space has been heavily Durham-centric.

Well, not this week.

Today our sojourn will be in the sunny climes of the Caribbean, by way of Brier Creek.

In Cuba and Puerto Rico there is a sauce called mojo (pronounced mow-hoe).  It’s a very strongly flavored marinade.  Along with herbs like oregano and culantro (culantro, not cilantro; it’s an entirely different plant), it’s full of garlic, olive oil, and bitter orange juice.

While different places have different varieties, the most common is mojo criollo.  Criollo means Creole, which is a mixture of cultures.  The cultures in this instance are Spanish, African, and indigenous Caribbean.  Traditionally it’s used in amazing pork dishes.

This will look very familiar to barbecue-crazy folks from NC…in Cuba and Puerto Rico it’s called lechon.  And once you’ve had it, you will dream about this crispy, crispy skin.

A few weeks ago I went shopping to help fill fridge and pantry in The Kid’s new apartment.  After Target, but before we hit Lowes Foods, we stopped at the dollar store.  It’s terrific for nonperishables.  I almost always buy egg noodles and canned beans there.  I’ve also gotten amazing cosmetics there too.  The $1.00 eye liner works better than one from Sephora costing $14.00.

As we were walking down one aisle, I spied a bottle of mojo criollo.  It was a smaller size, but even so, $1.00 is a real bargain.  The Kid picked up a bottle and so did I.

That was the first bottle I bought there.  I used it to marinate pork tenderloin and flavor a pot of black rice for dinner one night.  It was delicious.

Then I went back for a second bottle.

This time, I decided to color outside the lines.  I would do something with it that I’d never heard of.  I was going to make mojo pasta salad.

Mojo chicken pasta salad

mojo pasta

1/3 cup + 1/4 cup mojo criollo

1 cup mayonnaise

Pinch of sugar

Water

1/2 pound tubetti, sea shell, cavatapi, or lumaconi pasta

1 cup frozen peas, blanched and shocked

3/4 cup grape tomatoes or similar

1/4 cup diced red onion

3 cups cooked, shredded chicken

Salt and pepper to taste

Make dressing: Whisk together mayo, 1/3 cup mojo, and sugar.  Add enough water to make it the consistency of creamy salad dressing.  Taste and season.  Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours.

Slice tomatoes in half and place in colander.  Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon of salt and let sit out for at least 90 minutes.  This will draw out much of the moisture, so the tomato flavors are concentrated and the juice doesn’t dilute the dressing.

Cook pasta in heavily salted, boiling water until tender.  Drain.  While still hot, put into a large bowl and stir in ¼ cup mojo.  Cool completely.

1 hour before service, gently mix together all ingredients.  Stir in dressing.  Make it a bit wetter than you want the final product, as the dressing will absorb into salad and will dry out as it sits.

Let sit at room temp for one hour.  Before serving, toss and check for seasoning.

Serves 4-6 as a main or 8 as a side.

I buy them at the Durham Coop, and almost always have some in the fridge.

I served this with a large handful of pea shoots on top.  They’re exactly what you think; tiny shoots from a pea plant.  Fresh and green, with a mild peppery bite, they’re perfect for sandwiches and on top of dishes that need a hit of something bright.  They’re perfect on scrambled eggs and avocado toast.

We also had some bread with our meal.

While I was at Brier Creek picking up the mojo, I stopped by Earth Fare for one of the best deals in town.  They have freshly baked baguettes for only 98 cents, every day.  Right before we eat I run it under some water, and toss it in a 350-degree oven for 10 minutes or so.

This little trick brings bread back to bakery freshness.  I keep rolls and buns in the freezer, and with this method, we have fresh bread on demand (when frozen, they go for 13 minutes).  For yeasty dinner rolls, instead of water, I spread a thin layer of butter over the whole surface.  They come out crispy and buttery.

Plate up some of this pasta salad, pour a glass of rum, and turn on the salsa music.  You’re in Puerto Rico with no plane ticket required.

Thanks for your time.