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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Baked Polenta Fries

It's no secret that I love polenta with much muchness. It's awesome stuff. I love it soft and creamy or crisped up on the stove top. But the first time I tried polenta fries, it was a revelatory experience. It was at a local restaurant during happy hour. They serve it with this delightful gorgonzola butter (which I didn't think I'd like because bleu cheese and I do not generally mix), and the whole thing was divine. The polenta fries were tender but crispy, the way a good fry ought to be.

I knew then that this needed to be in my home cooking repertoire.

But here's the thing. I don't fry things.
I just don't.
I'm not scared of it, per se. I just hate the smell that lingers in the house, and I have no idea what to do with all that oil when I'm done. And it's hard to justify frying things. It just is.


So when I stumbled upon a recipe for BAKED polenta fries over at Oh My Veggies, it was only a matter of time before these happened at my house. The original recipe calls for a flavored log of pre-made polenta. I couldn't find any flavored polenta at my grocery store, so I mixed up my own seasoning of oil with Italian seasoning and garlic powder. I brushed it on the fries before baking, and it was just so yummy.

These polenta fries rounded out a summery meal of Caprese Salad quite nicely. We could not stop munching on these! We dipped them in plain old jarred spaghetti sauce -- it was addicting, like those yummy fried mozzarella sticks, but without the guilt and artery-clogging.

A friend of mine tried it with homemade polenta and told me they turned out well. I'll have to give it a try myself sometime, but until then I love the convenience of using the ready-made polenta from the store. I can keep it on hand in the pantry and have polenta fries pretty much any time I want them.
And I want them all the time now. I bet you will, too.


Baked Polenta Fries

Ingredients:
1, 18 oz. log prepared polenta
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. Italian seasoning blend (I like Penzey's)
coarse sea salt

Directions:
Heat oven to 450º.
In a small bowl, combine oil, garlic powder, and Italian seasoning. Set aside.
Cut polenta into 1/2 to 1 inch fry shapes. To do this easily, I cut the log in half lengthwise, then cut each half into about 3 planks, then the planks into strips. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in one even layer.
Using a pastry brush, brush the polenta with the oil mixture, turn pieces over, and coat the other side.
Bake for 35 - 40 minutes or until golden-brown, turning halfway through cooking time, if desired. (I didn't and it turned out fine, but one side was a bit toastier than the other.) Sprinkle with salt while still hot from the oven.
Serve with dipping sauce of your choice.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Stocking my Post-Partum Freezer



In 18 weeks or so, I'll be a mother all over again. It's scary business. We've got a good thing going with just the three of us, and a part of me is mourning its loss. I'm snuggling our firstborn more so that he knows I cherish this special time when I am just his Mommy and no one else's.  Our whole world is about to change.

But the other side of the coin is that our whole world is about to change. Again! Like the first time, only completely different. My little boy will become a big brother! I will see him grow and learn to love and share in ways he's never known. I'll see just how far my love (and patience) can stretch to make room for this new little one.

Once again, I'll see that I'm made of strong stuff -- I didn't realize it for a long, long time with my first because depression gets its grip on your mind and makes you feel so many untrue things. But now I know how the ugly lies it tells and that its foolish to believe them. I know when I need help, too, and how to ask for it.

I know that I can handle what's coming. I've done this before.

What I haven't done before is stock up my freezer before baby. When our first was born, we were living with my parents while hubby finished his Masters degree. There was no need for me to worry about feeding the family after the baby came -- my mom took excellent care of us.

This time around, after my mom comes out for the first little bit, we'll be on our own. And I intend to be prepared. I'm sure I'll be busy nursing and diapering. Going to the store will be challenging, but the family will still need to be fed. Having homemade meals on hand in the freezer will go a long way to making life manageable. These are things I could take from the freezer and get to the table with minimal work, or that hubby can make up after a long day at work so we won't resort to take out. (The options where we live are abysmal anyhow.)

Here's what I'm stocking up on for after baby makes his arrival:



Pre-Cooked Steel-Cut Oats

Oats are great for breastfeeding moms, and my preschooler adores oatmeal. Having it cooked up in advance and frozen in individual portions will be the perfect start to fuzzy, sleep-deprived mornings. Just add a little extra milk and a smear of jam or maple syrup.



Waffles

From the freezer to the toaster to your plate in just about a minute. And who doesn't like waffles?


Bagels

I have a 25 lb. bag of high-protien flour sitting in my pantry for homemade bagels (it was the same price for a 3 lb. bag as it was for 25 lbs. at Cash & Carry, so I guess we'll be making a LOT of bagels...). I know the recipe will make more than we can eat in one sitting, so the rest will keep nicely for later tucked into the freezer. Just toast and add cream cheese!


Chicken Noodle Soup

I'm due in November, prime soup season. Make up a batch of your favorite chicken noodle soup recipe, only omit the noodles until you're ready to serve. Then all you have to do is reheat and cook the noodles. My favorite noodles for chicken noodle soup come from the freezer section anyhow, so I'll just slip a package of those next to my soup in the freezer.



Pumpkin Chili

Any chili makes a great freezer meal. Just reheat and top with your favorite things (mine are cheese and sour cream).


Baked Pastas

Baked pastas are a great freezer meal option. I'm planning on making up a pan of Baked Ziti, and may also make up some Stuffed Shells. Both will go straight from the freezer to the oven beautifully.



Sloppy Joe (or Sloppy Sam) Filling

Sloppy Joes are one of my favorite dinners, but making them from scratch is a lot of work. Do it in advance and freeze it for an easy dinner. All you'll need are fresh buns and a green salad.

Calzones

I considered making a couple batches of pizza dough, but with arms full of newborn, it's difficult to roll out pizza dough. Reheating pre-cooked calzones, however, would be a cinch -- whether I'm doing it one-handed, or hubby gets it going after a long day at work.

Slow-Cooker Beef & Barley Soup

Freezer-to-crockpot meals are a fabulous option for hands-off cooking. I love that I can throw this in the slow cooker in the morning and have something worthwhile for my family to eat come dinner time. Just dump and go.

Twice-Baked Potatoes

I consider these a meal all on their own. Just bake the potatoes, stuff as desired, then freeze. When you're ready to eat them, bake them again from frozen until heated through and golden.



Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough

I don't know who wouldn't consider these essential. I'll make up a big batch of the dough, scoop into portions and freeze for cookies any time I need a little something sweet.



Do you stock your freezer with easy-prep meals to make life less hectic? What are your favorites? I'd love your recommendations!


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Couscous Stuffed Peppers with Creamy Basil Sauce


I have to say that my pictures hardly do this dish justice, which is a shame because it is one of my absolute favorite vegetarian main dishes. It reminds me a lot of this Trader Joe's salad, only heartier, and without the chicken. I love this dish any time of year, but I find myself busting it out most in the spring and summer months, even though it involves heating up the oven. It's worth it! The peppers get tender and mellow, and the couscous filling with chickpeas and currants gets toasty and a little crisp on the top, but still moist in the center. The chickpeas are one of my favorite parts, especially the ones that toast up on the top!

The sauce. Oh, the sauce.  It's really a lovely green color (not sure why it photographed white...) and so delicious -- I could eat it all on its own! It's creamy and tangy and herbaceous, and obsession-worthy.  This makes a filling and healthy dinner -- I usually only eat 1/2 of a pepper and I'm full to bursting. But it still manages to be light and summery. I'm not big on side dishes, so I usually just serve this by itself, but it would be fantastic with corn on the cob, or a crisp salad of greens or marinated cucumbers.


Leftovers are also fantastic -- I like to cut up the peppers and have it cold or room-temp the next day as a sort of salad with plenty of the creamy, dreamy dressing over top. I get excited about lunch the next day when these roasted peppers happen at my house -- and that's saying a LOT, because I HATE lunch. Lunch is the worst.

But I digress.

Make these. Then eat them. You'll see what I'm talking about.


Couscous Stuffed Peppers
from Giada De Laurentiis

Ingredients:
4 bell peppers -- I prefer red, but you can use any combination of colors you like best
1 c. vegetable stock
1 tsp. ground cumin
3/4 c. whole wheat couscous
1 c. canned chickpeas/garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 c. dried currants
1 c. lightly packed spinach leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 c. crumbled feta
1/4 c. oil, plus more as needed
salt and pepper to taste

Directions:
Prep bell peppers: remove tops, ribs, and seeds.* Set prepared peppers aside.
In a medium saucepan, heat stock, cumin, and a pinch of salt until steaming or at a low boil. Remove from heat and add the couscous. Cover and set aside 5 minutes, or until couscous is tender. Fluff with a fork and let cool a bit before combining with chickpeas, currants, spinach,  feta, and 1/4 c. oil in a large bowl. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. (Feta is a salty cheese, so go easy on the salt at first, and be sure to taste before you add more.)

Spoon this mixture into prepared bell peppers. Place peppers in a baking dish and carefully add about 3/4" of water to the bottom of the pan, being sure to avoid drenching the peppers and filling. Drizzle filling with oil, if desired.

Bake at 400º for 40-50 minutes for halved peppers or 50 - 60 minutes for whole peppers. The dish is done when the peppers have softened and the filling is golden. If the filling begins to brown more than you would like, cover the top loosely with foil and continue to cook until peppers are done.

Meanwhile, make the sauce (recipe follows).

*Note: I prefer to cut my peppers in half completely, rather than hollowing them out and leaving them whole -- I find they cook faster this way and I get a greater ratio of the tasty, toasty topping I crave. It also provides nice portion control, since getting through a whole pepper is a LOT of food. But you can certainly go the more traditional route by leaving them whole. I've given cooking times for both methods.
If you leave them whole, you may need to slice a bit off the bottom of the pepper to help it sit flat.

Creamy Basil Sauce

Ingredients:
1 c. lightly packed basil leaves
1/2 c. creme fraiche (You can use sour cream in a pinch, but creme fraiche gives much better results. You can easily make your own, if you think ahead a day or two.)
3 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. water
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
pinch of sugar
salt and pepper to taste


Directions:
Place all ingredients in food processor or blender and process until smooth. Taste seasoning and adjust.

When ready to serve: Plate each pepper, then top generously with basil sauce and serve warm or at room temperature.


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