Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Feeding the Book Club

It's not often I get to cook for more than one or two people, so when I have a chance to cater one of Lisa's book clubs (and I use that in the absolute loosest term possible) it's like I'm running my own restaurant. I go into full-on chef mode; deciding (usually around the last minute) what i'm going to make, how I want to do it, and most of the time making something I've never made before. That's half of the fun- making something that you think is going to turn out well, but you don't actually know until people eat it. So it basically comes down to your dinner being good and everyone enjoying it, or ordering pizza while scraping their plates off into the garbage can. Cooking without a net, i'll call it. It's the culmination of all of the impulsive meals that I cook for just Lisa and I.
Lisa hosts twice a year, and typically there are about six people including her. I like to make enough for me to have a plate as well, and now I have to consider Calvin having some too, so it really comes out to cooking for eight. Really not a big deal- I cook like that on most occasions anyway, which is why we always have leftovers (and i'm Italian, so there's that too).

It's like this, only minus the books.
Of course, at a book club like this, sitting around on the couch talking takes up the first hour or so. Coming up with tasty appetizers is very important, as it sets the stage for the remainder of the evening. Chips and salsa? Boring. Cheese and crackers? No thanks! The appetizers that I decided on were Carr Valley Bread Cheese- otherwise known as Juustoleipa. It's a very dense cheese with a taste that I can only describe as a cross between mozzarella and a salty/sweet cream. I typically will prepare it by cutting it into 1"x 1" cubes and cooking them with a little bit of butter on the stove top. I flip them often enough that all of the sides get nice and crispy, which is interesting because even though the cheese gets melty, it never actually melts, so it retains the cube shape. This is beneficial for ease of serving! Once they're done, they go on a plate, and are paired with raspberries and blackberries. It sounds like it wouldn't be good, but Oh. My. God. Those paired together are fantastic.

Raw (kinda) in the pan

Nice and crispy

If you eat it with fruit, it's healthy!

Along with the bread cheese, I put out a loaded baked potato dip made from green onions, freshly cooked and crumbled bacon, shredded cheddar cheese, seasoned salt, onion salt, and pepper. For dipping, I served pretzel thins. Nothing earth-shattering, but a nice compliment to the heavier bread cheese.

For the main dish, in the days leading up to book club, I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do- something pasta based, but not boring. I mean, not something that you'd have on a Wednesday night at home, but something special. I picked up about two pounds of gemelli (meaning "twin") pasta from Whole Foods, so I knew I had my base. Granted, it was a really, really wide open base, but a base nonetheless. I've always liked a buttery pasta, whether it's a buttery garlic or butter with shrimp, so I figured that I'd do a buttery sauce, but top it with another sauce. I guess making the butter be more of a coating for the pasta, then topping it with a cheesy alfredo...that sounded so good!


The pasta would be good just like that- but it would look boring. White pasta, white sauce....just blah. It needed to be spiced up a little. I thought adding a little protein in the form of chicken was a no-brainer, so I planned on some chicken breast cutlets. To finish off the pasta, I looked through my cabinets and found a jar of sun dried tomatoes, and I had my main dish set.

The pasta was cooked in the standard way- salted water brought to a boil, pasta added, cooked al dente, then drained. Once it was drained, it went back into the pot that it boiled in and I added some butter. There wasn't  much else involved in preparing the pasta!

Creating a sauce can be very difficult or very easy. I love alfredo sauce, but I absolutely loathe the kind that comes in a jar. It's always way too thick and never tastes like cheese. A while back, for one reason or another I bought a packet of Kroger powdered alfredo sauce mix, and it turned out to be delicious! I  think I bought it because I was going to mix it with some red sauce we had, but I don't really remember. Making it with milk, butter, and then adding some garlic powder and a generous amount of Parmesan cheese gave it the perfect consistency- thick, but not too thick, thin but not watery. It was a good flavor to mix with the background flavors of butter, pasta, chicken and sun dried tomatoes.
There were several ways that I could do the chicken- shredded and mixed into the pasta, cut into pieces and cooked in a pan, or the way I ultimately decided, which was to get my cast iron grill as hot as possible, and then quick cook them on the side with the raised grill marks. As a quick aside, I've found that cooking steak on a cast iron skillet rivals those being cooked on an open flame grill. I would consider myself someone who knows a good steak, and when I read about cooking it inside, I had to try it for myself. The cast iron is amazing for cooking cuts of meat- and would be perfect for these chicken cutlets.

Working the iron
I seasoned each cutlet with oregano, parsley, and poultry seasoning. Nothing fancy, I just wanted the chicken to be moist and juicy. Once the iron is hot (typically I'll leave it on for 5-10 minutes on high flame) I dropped each chicken onto the grill at an angle, strictly for aesthetics. The grill marks should be at an angle, it just looks better. After a minute, the chicken gets flipped, and after another minute, it's done. It's really that simple! The chicken comes off incredibly juicy- much more so that flame grilling. I put two cutlets on top of each plate of pasta.

Prepping the sun dried tomato mixture
As I said earlier, at this point the dish was still very monochromatic. I cut up a couple of the whole sun dried tomatoes, poured about 1/4 cup of the alfredo sauce into a glass, then took my immersion blender and blended it until it was a beautiful red/orange mixture. I poured it into a small sandwich bag, snipped the corner of it off, and used it like a pastry icing bag to 'drizzle' it over the top of the pasta and chicken. The pop of color really set it off!
It was a little bit more dramatic in person...
What to do for a side dish though? I racked my brain for ideas, and while walking through Kroger, I saw in the frozen food aisle they had boxes of green bean fries. I understand that a "typical" green bean fry is battered or covered in breadcrumbs and then fried, but I wanted to do something a little lighter. I bought two pounds of fresh green beans and a container of grated Parmesan. The preparation for them is actually quite easy- snap any bad ends of the beans off, lay them all flat on a pan that has been sprayed with cooking spray, give them a quick spray of canned olive oil, shake Parmesan cheese over them (as much or as little as you'd like) and bake! I bake them for about 15 minutes at 400, but you can adjust to suit your tastes. I prefer mine to be a little more crispy, but either way, the cheese makes a really tasty coating for the beans.
I could serve them just like this and they're still really yummy

But....cheese makes everything better.

The beans are fantastic on their own, but I wanted to make a couple of sauces to give everyone the option to dip them if they so desired. The first sauce was a buttermilk ranch (from Aldi, the absolute best store-bought buttermilk ranch I've ever had) Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black peppercorns. The other was a fire-roasted tomato sauce with a bit of cheese added. Both turned out great, and were quickly prepared with things I have in my fridge.

Along with everything else, no Italian meal is complete without some bread for the table. I had purchased a loaf of rustic ciabatta bread, brushed the top of it with butter and garlic powder, and baked it in my toaster. Tearing off as much as you want from the loaf is such a great dinner experience.

About to serve
So that's the story of my book club meal- my ever-so-brief brush with having my own restaurant. It's times like that I wish I had the financial ability to open a place. My passion alone would bring people in, and the food would bring people back. Sigh. Maybe someday!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Guest Post: Lasagnahhh!

Hello, Impulsive Chef fans!  Ms. Chef here, aka Lisa.

In my first guest post, I mentioned how though I am not a frequent cook, thanks to the wonderful talents of Mr. Chef (aka Brian), I love me some Italian food.  At every big holiday gathering, my mom would make a big tray of lasagna, and over all the years of watching and helping, I absorbed the process, and I can whip them together from scratch without a second thought.

Perhaps for some, making lasagna seems intimidating or even difficult, but I hope this post will show you how wonderfully easy it really is.

So, I start with getting my sauce cooking.  This I also learned from my mom, who would make a big pot of sauce every week.  I certainly don't have a recipe I follow, but it's quite simple.  I start with an olive oil base, to which I add a healthy amount of fresh minced garlic and fresh Italian herbs (I love the refrigerated squeeze tubes of herb "paste" - so easy!), and let simmer on medium heat for approximately 10 minutes (don't let the garlic burn, not that I speak from personal experience or anything!).

I then add tomatoes.  I use crushed tomatoes and tomato paste. I love the texture of the crushed tomatoes - they don't need to be blended - and the tomato paste adds just a bit of necessary sweetness to the sauce.  I stir it all together thoroughly to ensure everything is integrated (especially the oil).

At this stage sometimes I add a little more oil if needed, to thin the sauce somewhat.  And then, the crucial ingredient - milk.  (Or cream, if I'm really splurging.)  We typically have whole milk on hand these days, with my 15-month-old toddling around, so I use that.  Again, no measurement on that - it depends on the size of the sauce batch - but I just pour, stir, let simmer for a few, and then taste - and if it needs more, I splash in more.  Yes, Italian cooking is MY kind of cooking.  Anyway, the purpose of the milk (or cream) is to cut the acidity of the tomatoes.  My personal preference is a slightly sweeter sauce.

So while my sauce simmers (medium-low heat), I brown my meat.  I like to use 95/5 ground turkey, which is a somewhat healthier alternative to beef, and readily accepts however you choose to season it.  I use dried Italian seasoning and a light sprinkle of salt, and cook the meat JUST until it's browned (it will also bake for quite a while in the lasagna).

Next up is to prep the ricotta.  The goodness of fresh ricotta is just amazing, so I don't do much to alter it - just a spoonful of minced garlic and a sprinkling of salt.

How much do I love when it keeps its shape out of the container?  ;-)

Now, it's time for assembly!

I prep my baking dish with a thin layer of sauce, then put down my first layer of noodles (I use the no-boil kind, and it's crucial that they be surrounded/ covered with a moist layer, whether that's the sauce or the ricotta cheese.)  On top of the noodles I spread sauce mixed with the turkey, then comes a layer of ricotta, next fresh spinach leaves, followed by a generous sprinkling of shredded mozzarella cheese, and parmesan cheese.

Upon this foundation I repeat the layering process until I either run out of noodles or out of space in the dish, always topping my creation with mozzarella.

Ready to go!
I then cover the dish with foil, and it bakes at 375° for about an hour.  (Careful not to take off the cheese along with the foil when it's done!)

fresh outta the oven
Try to let it cool for a bit, so you don't burn your mouth as you shovel it in.  ;-)