Back on the wagon…

Well, I certainly haven’t been here as much as I like to be…and I haven’t been in the kitchen as much as I need to be, either!  The summer has  been lots of fun so far…I’m enjoying a lighter work schedule and the occasional day to sleep in (shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone) BUT I’ve really struggled with meal planning and cooking this summer. And anyone who has ever tried to maintain the whole Paleo-thing for any amount of time knows that the devil is in the details (of meal planning.) I finally got fed up with too-much-junk in the house last week and decided that my little vacation from the kitchen was over. And, in case you didn’t know it already, blogging here helps keep me accountable…so, here I am!

I spent a little time creating a week’s worth of meals so I could participate in this awesome project (there’s still room to join in, by the way) and then decided to go ahead and jump back on the wagon this week.

I’m going to be gone several nights this week, so I knew I would have to cook some stuff ahead – I got started on those this afternoon. This first one is a crockpot meal that is a big hit around here… Balsamic Roast

Spices for Balsamic RoastYou start with a spice rub that includes salt, pepper, smoked paprika, onion powder and garlic powder.

Spices and meat for Balsamic RoastYou place the top round roast of your choice in a crockpot (on top of some onion slices) and then rub the spices into it.

Ready to get happy for 6-8 hours, Balsamic RoastThen you pour in a tomato paste-balsamic vinegar mixture, a little white wine and cover and let the magic happen for 6-8 hours (or until the meat is sufficiently falling apart.) It has a nice tangy flavor and, like most roasts, is just as good the next day or two, so it’s perfect to make ahead or use for lunches. (pictured here with my favorite broccoli salad)

I also made some spaghetti squash that I’ll need for two other recipes this week. I don’t know if you have made friends yet with spaghetti squash, but seriously, this stuff is a hero to me. And with certain meals, I actually prefer it to pasta. (Don’t get me wrong, spaghetti squash doesn’t taste like pasta…but it has a very similar texture and you can swirl it around your fork and sauces can cling to it…it’s a very happy stand-in.)

I know that you can microwave it and I have done that when in a pinch but, trust me when I tell you that the texture is much, much better if you have the time to roast it. It’s not as mushy, closer to al dente, if you can swing the 35 minutes in the oven.

Spaghetti Squash in halfCut a whole squash in half lengthwise…

Spaghetti Squash, cleaned…scrape out the pulp and seeds (and put in your garden for the birds, if so inclined…that’s where these were going.)

Spaghetti Squash ready for ovenLine a baking sheet with parchment paper, place squash cut-side down and sprinkle the paper with about 3TB of water before placing in a 375° oven for 35 minutes.

Spaghetti Squash, ready to shredWhen they are finished, allow them to cool on a rack until you are able to handle them. (Or, if you are cooking them ahead of time like I was, just let them cool completely.)

Spaghetti Squash all doneOnce cooled, use a fork to separate the strands of squash and scrape out the “spaghetti.” Since I’m not using mine until Tuesday/Thursday, I put it in some Tupperware and stored it in the fridge. This is going to go under some Chicken Marsala and as a side for Chocolate Chili later this week.

Then finally, what we were having for dinner tonight: Meatballs and a Radicchio Salad

This recipe is from Sarah Fragoso’s new book Everyday Paleo Around the World: Italian Cuisine. I just got it recently and am very excited to have some of the results of her Italian adventure on the menu for this week. Meatballs are an easy homerun in this house and I have several recipes I like, so it’s always fun to try a new one.

Meatball ingredients ready  The ingredients all ready to go…Meatballs ready to mix … grass-fed beef, pastured eggs, organic spinach, sage, garlic, salt and pepper

Meatballs ready for the stove …mixed, formed and ready for the skillet. My oldest came into the kitchen while I was working on these and asked if they had grass in them.  (It wilts quite a bit while cooking, so it won’t always look like grass!)

Meatballs finished in a sauce  They cook relatively quickly in a large skillet on the stove top and stay nice and juicy.

Meatballs finished They are nestled in a paleo-fied “Béchamel sauce” that is made with white sweet potatoes (instead of flour) and coconut creme (instead of heavy cream.) It was a yummy sauce, but the coconut flavor came through a little too much for me to feel like I was eating a French-mother sauce. Very good, but I think I will still tweak it a bit…or just use it as a coconut sauce. I kept thinking about shrimp or even a nice white fish in it – that would have been perfect!

Lastly was a radicchio salad that I very much enjoyed in spite of how bitter I usually think it is.

radicchio salad This was very easy to make. A small head of radicchio shredded and spread out on a plate. Shallots, pancetta and garlic sautéed in butter and then whisked, while still warm, with olive oil, white wine vinegar and oregano get drizzled over the whole plate. Season with salt and pepper and voilà! I also think this dressing would be divine on spinach or maybe a combination of the two – especially if you want something in there to cut a little bit of the radicchio bitterness – but overall, it was delish!

The Balsamic Roast recipe is below…and for more of Sarah’s meatballs, check out her site here. And, as for me, I’m back on the wagon so I’ll be back with the rest of the menus this week!  Happy Summer everyone…

Balsamic Roast

Prep: 15min

Cook: 6-8hours

2 pounds top round beef (or your roast of choice)

1 TB salt

1 TB smoked paprika

1 TB garlic powder

1 TB onion powder

1 TB black pepper

2 TB coconut oil

1 large sweet onion, sliced

½ cup balsamic vinegar

8 oz tomato sauce

½ cup water

2 TB white wine

Mix spices in a small bowl and season roast generously on all sides.

Heat coconut oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Sear each side of the roast for 3-4 minutes. Place the sliced onions in the bottom of a crockpot and put seared roast on top of the onions. (I have made this plenty of times when I skipped the searing part and just put the spice-rubbed meat straight into the crockpot. I do think you lose a little bit of flavor but if you are really in hurry, doesn’t hurt to skip it.)

Combine vinegar and tomato sauce, mix well, and pour over the roast. Add the water and white wine to the pan to deglaze (gather up the brown bits of flavor) and pour this mixture in the crock pot as well.

Cover. Set to low for 7-8 hours.

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Is it one thousand degrees where you are?

OK, so maybe it’s not 1000° here, but it is certainly well over 100° and has been for many days and most likely will be for many more – like until after Halloween.

If I don’t get the boys out to the park or the zoo before 10am, then we aren’t going.  We spend a lot of time at the air-conditioned playgrounds around town, swimming and doing anything else inside.

So, I’m pretty reluctant to turn on the oven.

Enter crock pot.

This dish has made the cyber rounds on all the recipe sites for quite some time. I’ve made it a number of times and it’s just so simple you won’t even feel like you are cooking. Really.

Ready?

Place several celery stalks in the bottom of the crock pot.

Put a whole seasoned chicken on top. Throw in some herbs.

Then locate a large amount of garlic. Like a whole lot of it.

Then throw it all in.

Cover it up and walk away.

Come back about 8 hours later and serve dinner from a relatively cool kitchen.

See? Hardly cooking.

I like to use the garlic in mashed potatoes…or you can smear it on slices of crusty bread…whatever floats your boat. Here’s the official recipe in case you want to include the gravy part (making the gravy will definitely make it feel more like cooking, by the way.)

40 CLOVE GARLIC CHICKEN

1 large broiler/fryer whole chicken (as big as your crock will fit)

thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley

salt

fresh ground pepper

40 cloves unpeeled garlic (as you can see from the photo, I peel mine…do as you wish)

2 stalks celery, washed and cut into 3 inch pieces

baguette or french bread slices, toasted (optional)
Place the celery slices on the bottom of the crock. Season the chicken in and out with salt, pepper, and generously with the herbs. Place on top of the celery. Place the cloves all around and on top of the chicken. Cover and cook on low 8 hours.

Remove chicken and celery to serving platter. Remove garlic to small bowl.

GRAVY

1/4 cup cream

2 – 3 tablespoons cornstarch

salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Skim the fat off the liquid in the crockpot. Turn to high. Add the cream. Mix cornstarch with a small amount of water until smooth and add to liquid. Stir, cover and heat until thickened. You can pour some on the chicken and put the rest in a gravy boat.

Serve with noodles or garlic mashed potatoes made from some of that wonderful roasted garlic in the pot. The roasted garlic can also be squished out of its skins onto the toasted bread.

Lasagna: Two Ways

For years I’ve been saying that I was supposed to be Italian. And I really, really mean it. I was totally born on the wrong continent.

Cinque Terre in Italy

That’s one of the villages in Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. I wish I lived there. And here’s another village in that same region:

(Photo from 321forms.com)

Of course there’s always the countryside of Tuscany – really, who wouldn’t want to run away to this place? It seems the sunshine there is always golden like that. Gorgeous.

(Photo from physictourism.com)

If I ever just “disappear,” chances are good that I’ve found myself a little hideaway somewhere in all this beauty. Oh, and I can’t forget Florence.

(Photo from localyte.com)

Florence and Kiev have always been neck-and-neck at the top of my most-captivating-cities-I’ve-ever-visited list. Florence overwhelms me. In a good way.

Look at this gorgeous shot from thesassysteelmagnolia.com

I’m about to pack my bags right now…and I haven’t even started thinking about the food! The food!

I’m working on another food blog project right now – just doing the behind-the-scenes prep work at the moment for something I hope to launch this year (isn’t that a tease?) Anyway, some of the books I’m reading through as research claim to have lists of the “best dishes in the world” or “a global culinary canon” and on these lists there are 80 – 100 different dishes presented. Guess where most of them come from? In fact, on one list nearly one quarter of the entire list was from two places…Italy and France. The French, of course. (Not that I have anything against France…as long-time readers will remember from my French phase…and it’s probably safe to assume that my “French phase” is more of a culinary stand-by than a phase anyway.)  Those French – they’ve got the whole kitchen thing down.

Anyway…back to Italy.

Well, no, not exactly. I’m not in Italy. That’s the problem. I’m never in Italy. (insert sad-pouty face here)

So, that leaves me the food. And in our house, we’re more than happy to oblige.

Lasagna.

Let’s talk about it.

It can be an all-day event. Or not. It can be tomato or Béchamel. With meat or not. With spinach or not. The variations are many.

I could live on lasagna. It’s one of the very few things I have in common with Garfield. Breakfast, lunch, dinner – it seems appropriate. I think I’ve made approximately 213 different versions of lasagna. Don’t worry, I’m only going to talk about two of them right now. One that will take you most of a day. And one that will not.

Let’s start with the longer version.

Second only maybe to Hollandaise, I would say this sauce is my husband’s favorite. He gets a little gleam in his eye when I say I’m going to make it. Bolognese…this is the beginning of the all-day lasagna.

Commonly known as “aromatics” and the base to many, many stocks, soups, stews and sauces, the combination of onions, celery and carrots make up what the French call “mirepoix” (pronounced meer-PWAH.) Creole cooking calls it the “holy trinity” and in Italian it is “soffritto.”

The vegetables are cooked down for a few minutes in a combination of butter and olive oil. The the meats are added and cooked. Then the happy begins.

This sauce gets reduced three times. Yes. You read that correctly. Three. Which means three times the yumminess. And it also means it takes a good part of the afternoon. And makes your house smell scrumptious.

First a quart of milk. Reduce gently for nearly an hour. Then you do the same with red wine and the third time is beef stock.

After the three or so hours of reducing, it will look something like this:

A nice rich color and you can see the reduction on the side of the pot. At this point you should feel free to grab a spoon and just eat it right off the stove top. No one would judge you.

Or you can let it cool and use it to make lasagna. Or drench some pasta with it. And I usually divide it up and freeze some for another time. It freezes beautifully. But whatever you do with it, when you serve it you should immediately feel like that tiny little Italian grandmother who is perpetually in an apron and always seems to make the most wonderful things appear from her kitchen.

Now let’s talk about a lasagna that doesn’t require you to channel “Nonna” or stand near the stove for half the day.

Yes – that’s a crockpot.

I didn’t follow a recipe for this lasagna, so I’ll just show you what I did. The meat sauce is about a pound and a half of ground beef or turkey, browned, and then mixed with one of those packets of spaghetti sauce. You know, the kind you mix with a small can of tomato paste and some oil and water? And I also added some sliced mushrooms. The noodles are the pre-semi-cooked kind.

The cheese mixture is ricotta, parmesan and mozzerella. Then I added in some basil and some Italian seasoning. I have also used that herb-seasoned cheese spread mixture in place of the ricotta before – also yummy. You can see it here all mixed:

Then the parts all get layered into the crock pot.

A little sauce in the bottom, then noodles, then cheese mixture. Repeat. Repeat. You know how lasagna works.

After the last layer of sauce, cover with mozzarella. Cover and cook on low for 4-6 hours. (You will have to experiment with the time in your own crockpot…depending on its size and how many layers you put in…it could take more or less time.)

It’s very easy to have the sauce and the cheese mixture in your fridge and it only takes about 10 minutes to assemble it. The last time I made it, I threw it together when I was cleaning up the kitchen from lunch. The boys and I headed out for the park and to run some errands…we got home about the same time as their dad got home from work…I put a quick salad together and dinner was ready.

It’s not Italy. I know.

But it kind of smells like it. Or at least a kitchen in Italy.

And, if you close your eyes while eating that Bolognese sauce, you just might be able to transport yourself to this place:

Bologna Countryside (cscaduta)

It’s worth a try.

Bolognese Sauce

adapted from Martha Stewart, 2003

3 TB unsalted butter

3 TB extra-virgin olive oil

2 onions, ¼ inch dice

3 stalks celery, ¼ inch dice

3 carrots, ¼ inch dice

2 pounds ground sirloin

2 pounds ground pork

1 quart whole milk

2 1/2 cups dry red wine

1 quart beef stock (2 14.5 oz cans)

1 cup tomato paste

1 ½ teaspoons coarse salt

¾ teaspoon fresh ground pepper

In a large cast-iron or enamel pot, heat butter and olive oil over medium heat.  Add onions, cook until they soften (5 minutes.)  Add celery and carrots, cook until vegetables are tender (8-10 minutes.)  Add ground sirloin and pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is no longer pink.  Add milk, cook at a gentle simmer, skimming fat from surface until liquid has reduced by half (about an hour.)  Add wine, simmer until liquid is reduced by half again (about 45 minutes.)  Add beef stock, tomato paste, salt, pepper and simmer gently until sauce thickens (about an hour.) Makes about 3 quarts.

“Real Chickens” as my mother would say…

I have to explain a little something about my mother.  For as long as I can remember, she’s been making up terms for things.  She doesn’t invent new words, it’s more like she reassigns a definition to words we already know.  My father used to say he was going to start keeping a list of them all and someday we could have a Cindy Dictionary.  As far as I know, he’s never done it.

This is what my mother would call a “real” chicken.  It’s real because it came from a farm where you could have seen it running around in the grass before you cooked it.  Once recently when I was at her house she informed me that the eggs in the refrigerator were “real eggs” from her neighbor who keeps chickens.  (I’ve often wondered why she doesn’t call grocery store eggs and chickens “imaginary,” but alas they are just regular old eggs and chickens.)

My apologies to this real chicken for such an unflattering shot

Since we are trying to get all the grocery store meat and produce out of our lives, we happen to have had a stock of real chickens recently.  There’s just something about a whole bird that makes me want to keep them whole.  (And no, it’s not that I’m too lazy to cut them up!)  And since I’ve been without a working oven since before Thanksgiving, I didn’t need much of an excuse to haul out the rotisserie.

Nothing fancy here.  Rosemary, tarragon, thyme, garlic cloves and lemon slices are stuffed into the cavity.  The legs are trussed and the skin is patted dry and salted.  That’s it.  Into the little turning oven it goes.

I think normally I let the skin get a little darker than this.  But I was so paranoid this chicken was going to be tough and dry I pulled it off as soon as the juices were clear.  (And in spite of the constant assurances from my husband that this “free range yard bird will be as tough as leather,” I thought it tasted delightful.)  He actually said that it tasted just like regular chicken, which, of course, it did.  I’m convinced its flavor was more “chickeny” than what we used to eat, but he says it’s all in my head.  What I do know is that it was yummy and I felt pretty good about handing my three-year-old a “real” chicken leg.

And speaking of whole chickens, I just have to share this other recipe with you.  I’ve had this in my stack of “Want to Try” recipes for over a year…and it did enjoy some internet fame over a year ago, so this may be old news.  But it fit the bill for my “whole-chickens-no-oven” situation, so I finally gave it a go.

CROCKPOT 40 CLOVE GARLIC CHICKEN

-1 large broiler/fryer whole chicken (as big as your crock will fit)

-thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley

-salt

-fresh ground pepper

-40 cloves UNPEELED garlic

-2 stalks celery, washed and cut into 3 inch pieces

-baguette or french bread slices, toasted (optional)
Place the celery slices on the bottom of the crock. Season the chicken in and out with salt, pepper, and generously with the herbs. Place on top of the celery. Place the cloves all around and on top of the chicken. Cover and cook on low 8 hours.
Remove chicken and celery to serving platter. Remove garlic to small bowl.


GRAVY

-1/4 cup cream

-2 – 3 tablespoons cornstarch

-salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
Skim the fat off the liquid in the crockpot. Turn to high. Add the cream. Mix cornstarch with a small amount of water until smooth and add to liquid. Stir, cover and heat until thickened. You can pour some on the chicken and put the rest in a gravy boat.

Serve with noodles or garlic mashed potatoes made from some of that wonderful roasted garlic in the pot.

The roasted garlic can also be squished out of it’s skins onto the toasted bread.

(I can’t remember where I got this recipe since I’ve seen so many different versions of it.  I thought I got it here, but her recipe looks different. Another site said that the original recipe was from Rival and came with the crockpot booklet.)

I actually used sliced onions instead of celery – partly because we didn’t have any celery and party because no one in my house really likes it.  And I don’t have an “After” photo because I came home after six straight hours of shopping (which is akin to a root canal for me) to a house full of hungry people. It was already dark and in my brain-dead state it took all of my organizational skills to just give instructions on mashing the potatoes and setting the table.  But the chicken just fell right off the bone and was probably some of the most tender I’ve ever had.  My husband said, “This is a keeper.”  I also recommend going easy on the fresh herbs – they can easily overpower the dish and the gravy – you don’t need much.

Yippee for “real” chickens!