Friday, July 26, 2013

Easy Mexican-Inspired Chicken

The fridge stare. We all do it from time to time. You've been thinking about a certain recipe, maybe, but tonight it just doesn't sound as appetizing as it once did. Or you didn't have anything in mind at all and just hoped a plan would magically appear for you if you waited long enough. Either way, you end up staring into your fridge wondering what in the world you can make for dinner before you resort to yet another bowl of cereal.

I am the queen of the fridge stare. At the complete mercy of my stomach's whims, I often resort to making up recipes according to what's in the fridge and what I feel like eating that day. So yesterday, instead of making the Thai-style cod I was planning, I ended up with what I'm calling Mexican-inspired chicken.

Mexican-Inspired Chicken (4 servings)
4 chicken thighs
frozen corn
1 bell pepper
1 onion
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons cayenne (or to taste...if you like spicy, go for it; if you don't, cut this back)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 can of diced tomatoes, undrained
box of brown rice

1. Place chicken thighs into a 1.5 quart casserole.
2. Julienne bell pepper and onion (cut it into long, thin pieces...or just do what I did and buy this pre-cut and frozen for your convenience. Yes, fresh is probably better, but sometimes you just don't know what to do with all the leftovers when you only need a little.)
3. Sprinkle corn, bell pepper, and onion over the chicken...really however much you want to be in there is good. I could have used some more, to be honest.

4. Mix cumin, cayenne, garlic, and lemon juice into the can of tomatoes. (If you're careful, you can do it right in the open can, but I definitely suggest doing it over the sink if you try!)
5. Pour spiced tomatoes over chicken.

6. Bake at 400 degrees for about 70 minutes.
7. While that's baking, prepare brown rice according to the instructions on the box. Rice is one of the few things I will make from a box on occasion, just because I like not having to measure it out and there's no extra processing nightmares to worry about - as long as you don't get some crazy flavor, it's the exact same as the stuff in the bags.
8. When it's all ready, put rice on your plate (or the bottom of your bowl, if you're like me and like eating out of bowls) and top with a chicken thigh and some veggies. Drizzle with some of the cooking liquid and enjoy!

Be aware there will be a lot of liquid left over in your casserole. If you want, you can add a little cornstarch and thicken it up into a more proper sauce, but be aware that thickening will concentrate the spice from the cayenne. If you accidentally make yours too hot, you have a couple of options:
1. Add more rice to balance it out.
2. Stir in a little sour cream to cool it down.
3. If you don't have sour cream, you can also stir in some plain or vanilla yogurt for the same effect.

And for those of you who were wondering about leftovers...yes, you can freeze this stuff too! Just make sure that when you do, all the rice is well-stirred and integrated into the sauce. Dry rice (or pasta) does NOT freeze well at all.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Mixed Berry Boy Bait

I am a woman of many wildly different loves, including (but certainly not limited to) reality television, cooking blogs, freshly baked bread, and recipes with silly names. So when, on a recent archive crawl through one of my favorite blogs, Smitten Kitchen, I stumbled across a post celebrating funny recipe names with a cake called Blueberry Boy Bait, my immediate thought was, "I need to make this. And it should be a muffin."

But a cake is, of course, not a muffin, and it took me a few tries to come up with a recipe that I felt reflected the idea of the original recipe while taking it out of the realm of desserts. The final result is dense, full of fruit, and balances the sweetness with some hearty whole wheat goodness.

Mixed Berry Boy Bait (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
1 cup + 2 tablespoons AP flour, separated
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk (or whole milk)
1 cup blueberries
1 cup strawberry slices

handful blueberries
handful strawberry slices
ground cinnamon

1. Mix 1 cup AP flour, whole wheat flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Set aside.
2. In a different bowl, beat butter and both sugars with an electric mixer until "fluffy". What does fluffy sugar butter look like? Well, something like this (it's hard to see due to the mixer I had to use, but hopefully you can get an idea):

It should be well-mixed, and take up a little more space due to extra air being beaten in. It happens pretty quickly - about a minute or two of beating should do it.
3. Add eggs one at a time, beating each one in just until it is incorporated into the sugar butter and you can't see the egg anymore.
4. Divide the flour mixture into thirds; add the first third to the sugar butter and beat in carefully! Start slow and don't go any faster than about medium speed, or you'll shoot all that flour into the air - and onto your walls, floor, face...
5. Divide the buttermilk in half and beat in the first half, starting slowly again as to not splash it everywhere.
6. Beat in the next third of the flour, followed by the second half of the buttermilk, and finally the last third of the flour.
7. Using your now-empty flour bowl, toss blueberries and strawberries in the 2 tablespoons of AP flour. This will help keep them from sinking to the bottom to our muffins.
See how I cut my berries? You don't want entire slices of strawberries - remember, you're biting into a muffin, so you want more of a very big dice.
8. Liberally butter and flour a muffin tin. I highly suggest doing this over the sink, or you will likely end up with flour all over the place yet again. No one said baking wouldn't be messy!
9. Gently fold the floured berries into the batter.
10. Lightly spoon batter into prepared muffin tin, filling them almost (or entirely) to the top.
11. Place extra blueberries and strawberry slices on top of each muffin.
12. Sprinkle muffins with a pinch of cinnamon each.

13. Bake at 350 until a toothpick inserted into the top comes out clean, somewhere around 25 minutes.

14. Allow to cool in a pan for just a few minutes before carefully removing from the pan and cooling on a wire rack. If you can tip the pan over and have them fall out for you - great! If there are any stuck ones, or if you're not comfortable with the "tip and catch" method, you can run a butter knife carefully around the edge of each muffin to make sure they aren't stuck, and then carefully pull them out with a fork. Serve warm or cold over the next 2-3 days.

-Make sure you are scraping down the bowl while you are beating all your ingredients together to make sure it is completely mixed.
-I got 14 muffins out of this recipe. If you cannot eat 14 muffins at once, you can freeze the extras in a muffin pan before you bake them; once they are solid, pop them out of the muffin pan and put them into a freezer bag. When you are ready, just remember to put them back into the pan before defrosting and baking them, or they of course won't hold their shape!
-If you'd like to make this even more healthy, you can use 1/2 cup of butter and 1/2 cup of plain yogurt.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Greek Salad Empanadas

I love Greek salad. It's easily one of my favorite things to eat on a hot summer day like today. But even the best things in life can get old. So what better way to revamp it than as an empanada filling?

I love empanadas because they're delicious, first off all, but they're also incredibly versatile. You can put pretty much anything you want inside an empanada, and they are much easier to make than they look.

Most empanada doughs involve cutting butter into flour as if you were making biscuits. This is really not a difficult process, as long as you have a pastry blender. The talented among us can achieve the same results with two knives, or by mixing it by hand. I have tried all of these methods, and the only one I can get to work consistently is the pastry blender. (This is actually the only reason I even own a pastry blender.) But no worries! If you are one of those people whose reaction to the instruction "cut in butter" is to immediately back away and reach for the take-out menu instead, I have you covered. Actually, the good folks over at Use Real Butter have you covered, with their delicious dough solution that's so easy, you could do it in your sleep.

Dough (stolen almost exactly from Use Real Butter)
1 cup water
3/4 cup butter or lard
2 3/4 cup flour
2 tsp salt
pinch of spices/herbs (they used paprika; since I was pairing it with Greek salad, I used oregano)

1. Combine flour, salt, and spices/herbs in a mixing bowl, forming a well in the center.
2. Heat water and butter in a saucepan just until the butter is melted.
3. Pour about 1/4 of the melted butter/water into the flour. Mix carefully by hand - remember, it's still hot!
4. Continue pouring in the butter mixture, adding about 1/4 of the liquid every time, until all the liquid is incorporated into the dough. It will be extremely sticky and wet, and you will think you've completely messed it up. Don't worry! It's supposed to look like that. Really. If you keep mixing it and nothing's changing, you're good.

5. Carefully pour the dough onto a piece of saran wrap and wrap it up into a ball. (I like to double wrap mine to safeguard against holes or leaks) Refrigerate for about 2 hours.

While that's hanging out in the fridge, make your filling. You don't want the filling to be too wet, or they'll make the bottom of your pastries soggy after they're baked. Thankfully, there's not too much we have to change to make Greek salad work in this application.

Greek Salad Filling
1 cup diced cucumber
1 cup diced tomato
1/2 cup diced red onion
1 cup diced bell pepper (any color you like; I prefer orange)
splash of red wine vinegar
pinch of oregano
salt (I use kosher salt, but table salt would be fine)
black pepper

*traditionally, Greek salad should include olives. I hate olives, so I leave them out. Feel free to add them back in if you like them.

**I also meant to include feta, but just plain forgot. It was still delicious, but you could definitely add it back in as well!

1. Toss cucumber, tomato, red onion, and bell pepper in a bowl.
2. Splash with red wine vinegar. You want enough to get the flavor, but not enough to soak the veggies. (It's okay if you overdo it a little; you'll just want to let it settle to the bottom of the bowl and drain it out before putting the filling into the empanadas)
3. Season with oregano, salt, and pepper to taste.
4. Let rest in the fridge until the dough is ready. Try not to eat it ahead of time.

Assembling and Baking
1. Flour your workspace and a rolling pin. If you don't have a rolling pin, pretty much anything hard and cylindrical will work, as long as it's bigger than your finished product. (I routinely use a beer bottle.)
2. Unwrap your dough and split into 12 pieces. Your dough will still be sticky, but should pull away from the saran wrap fairly easily by now.
3. Roll each piece out in a circle about 1/4 of an inch thick. See my beer bottle rolling pin in the background?

4. Place 3 tablespoons (more or less; as you make more, you'll learn to eyeball the amount pretty easily) of filling slightly to one side of the circle.

5. Fold the other side over the filling and pinch the overlap together.
6. To form the best seal, use a fork to crimp the edges shut. I like a thick edge on mine, but that's a slightly odd personal preference. Feel free to make yours as thin or as thick as you'd like!

7. Bake at 375 for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown and flaky.


If you run out of filling - I made a few of mine a little big, and had a dough circle leftover - you can make an empanada desert for a second course! I sliced up a little bit of banana, sprinkled it with sugar, and topped it with some dark chocolate chips. Fill and bake the exact same way.

Another reason to love empanadas: they freeze really well! So if you aren't feeding enough people to need 12 empanadas, just bake off the ones you do want and stick the rest in the freezer on parchment paper. Make sure they aren't touching, or they'll freeze together. Once they're solid, wrap individually in saran wrap and place in a freezer bag. Whenever you get a craving for empanadas, or simply don't feel like cooking anything new, just pull them out and stick them in the oven. You don't even have to defrost them; just add a few more minutes to the cooking time to compensate.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

How to Bake Authentic Baguettes

I put my parents on a plane to France a few days ago. They're going to be gone for three weeks - driving around the country, eating and exploring and trying to speak some semblance of French. I have been several times, but won't be going this year; I just get to shuttle them to and from the airport and take care of the dogs. As I watched my parents walk away and suppressed the urge to run and beg for the thirtieth time to hide in their suitcases, I decided I was going to bring France home to all of you instead. (You didn't know you were going on vacation today, did you?)

We're starting with the baguette. It's a worldwide symbol of France, and they're impossible to avoid when you're there. Not that anyone minds! If all you've ever had is a sad, soft grocery store "baguette", you really have no idea what you're missing. A proper French baguette has a very hard, crispy crust, with a soft, chewy inside with almost as many air bubbles as there is actual bread. The most traditional version is a deceptively simple recipe with only four ingredients: flour, salt, yeast, and water. The genius of baguettes is in the technique. It'll likely take you more than one attempt to get right, but no fear - even a not-quite-right baguette still tastes delicious! If you have trouble with yeast, you can convert your oven into a proof box (what professional bakers use to get good rises) by putting a bowl of boiling water on the lowest rack and shutting the door. The heat and humidity will help encourage your bread to rise!

With no further ado, here is my recipe for baguettes (translated and adapted from
4 cups* of bread flour**
300 ml of water
1 tsp salt
2.5 tsp dry yeast
1 egg, beaten (optional - I normally don't bother unless the loaf is meant for someone else)

*note: it is, in fact, far better to weigh your flour than use volume measurements like cups. However...I don't own a kitchen scale yet. I know, it's shameful. It's on my list, I promise! The original recipe called for 500 grams of bread flour

**yes, the bread flour makes a difference! If you must, it'll work with AP flour, but you'll lose some of that awesome chewy texture.

1. Mix the salt into the flour, and form a well in the middle of the mixture.
2. Heat the water until it is warm, but not hot, to the touch. (Usually 15-30 seconds in the microwave will do it)
3. Add the yeast and the warm water to the well in the flour mixture.
4. Using your fingertips, stir it around until the flour starts to incorporate. Continue mixing by hand, slowly adding the flour until it is all incorporated and you are left with a ball of dough. It will likely start off looking like this:
Don't worry, there should be more than enough moisture in there to form the dough ball. Just start gathering up dough and squishing it all together until you're left with a rough, sticky lump.
5. Kneed the dough for about 5 minutes. When you're done, it should be soft and elastic and no longer sticky to the touch (tacky is fine, but it shouldn't be sticking to anything). Dust some flour over a clean surface and turn out the dough if you didn't before. Using your fingers, split the dough in half.
7. Still using your fingers, pat each chunk of dough out into a rectangle. Fold the long edges of the rectangle together, so you're left with a long, thin rod of dough. (the word "baguette" actually means "rod", not "bread")
8. Pinch the ends of each rod into a point.
9. If you have one, put your loaves into a baguette pan like this one on Amazon. If you don't have on, that's alright, just use a regular sheet pan, but you won't get the nice, crispy crust on the bottom of your loaves. It should look something like this:

10. Put them back in the warm place to rise for about 40-60 minutes. Here's how I make my proofing box: the bread goes on the top rack. A bowl or container of some kind goes on the bottom rack. I like using the bowl I mixed the dough in, for sheer laziness - I don't have to find another one, and the hot water helps wash it out before I even get started on the dishes! Your oven should look like this:

Pull out the bottom rack for safety's sake, and pour boiling water into your bowl.

CAREFULLY push the rack back into place and shut the oven door. You may want to replace the boiling water as it cools - for baguettes, I normally do two rounds of water to maintain the heat and humidity.
I tried to take a picture of this for you, but it just looks like an oven door. Hopefully you know what that looks like!
12. Cut some shallow incisions in the top of the bread to allow for the final rise in the oven.
13. Optional: Brush the top of the loaf with a beaten egg (it doesn't change the flavor, but makes the crust darker)
14. Bake at 400 until golden brown, about 25-35 minutes.

If you aren't sure if the bread is done, there is a quick and easy test: pick it up (wearing your oven mitt, of course!) and tap on the bottom of the loaf. It should make a hollow sound.

Another bit of baguette trivia: it is practically a law of physics, particularly in Paris, that when one buys a fresh-baked baguette from their favorite boulangerie, you cannot leave without twisting off one of the knobby ends and eating it on the spot. There is even a word for it - le quignon!

Enjoy quickly! Baguettes do not last long - about a day at the very most. If you still have bread left over tomorrow, it will be distressingly stale...but perfect for, say, pain perdu (known to most Americans as French toast) or homemade bread crumbs.