Sunday, August 28, 2011

Cuban Burgers

Sadly, the end of summer is rapidly approaching. While there is little difference between the couple weeks before and after Labor Day, the holiday weekend is an important psychological benchmark that symbolizes the transition into fall, my favorite season. As at the end of every summer, no matter how much I did, I look back and wish I would have done more things and gone more places, but looking back at my culinary adventures this summer, I would say my greatest success is my multitude of burger creations. Although I definitely won't stop grilling just because it's past Labor Day, I think it's appropriate to send summer out on high note with another decadent burger recipe and offer up this recipe for the coming holiday weekend.

Cuban sandwiches are one of my favorite sandwiches (the Reuben being the other), and something I have a hard time passing up when I'm out to eat. The traditional Cuban sandwich is a sumptuous combination of roast pork, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles, pressed together into melty nirvana between two slices of Cuban bread. Although you can't go wrong with the traditional sandwich form, I couldn't resist adapting it into a decadent burger, my favorite creative culinary palette as of late. This flavorful burger makes no apologies for its layers of richness from the ground pork, ham, and cheese, but has just the right amount of acidity and sharpness from the mustard and pickles to cut through to fatty pork goodness. A delicious indulgence like this burger is a great way to send off the summer but also happily served with a cold beer during the football season.

Cuban Burgers
serves 2

8 ounces ground pork
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 slices ham
2 slices Swiss cheese
2 hamburger buns, split and toasted
2 tablespoons yellow mustard
Sliced dill pickles

1. Preheat a grill pan or gas grill over medium to medium-high heat or prepare a charcoal grill (my personal preference). Divide ground pork into two even patties and season each side with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cook burgers until internal temperature reach 160 degrees F.

2. While the burgers are cooking, spread half the mustard on one half of each hamburger bun and top with pickles. Once the burgers are cooked through, top each burger with two slices of ham and one slice of Swiss cheese and cook until the the cheese is melted and the ham is warmed through. Transfer to the bottom halves of the hamburger buns, top with the other half, and serve hot.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Smoked Beef Pizza

Even though I eat a huge variety of fruits and vegetables and eat plenty of vegetarian meals, I am an absolute sucker for charcuterie and pretty much any smoked meat or cheese product. I was unable to exist the siren song of smoked, cured beef at the farmer's market with thoughts of delicious, stacked-high deli sandwiches on crusty bread in my future, but decided to take a different approach once I brought my bounty home. In the spirit of the Italian beef sandwich, traditionally made with thinly sliced roast beef topped with giardineria or sauteed green peppers and delicious meat juices, I covered my smoked beef with delicious slow-cooked onions and peppers, uniting them under a blanket of melty cheese on a pizza crust. The savory, smoky beef melds divinely into the soft, caramelized onions and peppers and rich, crusty cheese in this carnivore-pleasing pizza. While these ingredients make a delicious sandwich nestled together on a crusty roll, they are just as happy on a pizza crust with the higher ratio of toppings to bread allowing the flavor of the meat and vegetables to come to the forefront even more. Use green and yellow (Packer fans) or red bell peppers (Badger fans) and serve with a cold beer for a great game snack during the rapidly approaching football season.

Smoked Beef Pizza
serves 3-4

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 medium onion, sliced
1 medium green bell pepper, sliced
1 red or yellow bell pepper, sliced
Kosher salt
One 12-inch prepared whole grain pizza crust
1/2 cup pizza sauce
8 ounces sliced smoked, cured beef
1 cup shredded mozzarella or provolone cheese

1. Preheat canola oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add sliced onions, peppers, and a dash of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are browned, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low and continue cooking until vegetables are soft and caramelize, about 30 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, preheat an oven to 450 degrees F. Spread pizza sauce evenly over pizza crust. Arrange sliced beef in a concentric circle, covering the crust completely with beef. Distribute peppers and onions evenly over the top of the beef and top with shredded cheese.

3. Cook pizza for 8 to 12 minutes, until cheese is melted and just starting to brown. Let pizza rest for a couple minutes, then slice into 8 pieces and serve hot.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Cherry Pecan Chicken Salad

Until the past year or two, I rarely put fresh fruit on my salads with the exception of the occasional canned Mandarin orange on a "Chinese" chicken salad, but now I've come to adore the contrast in texture and flavor that fresh fruit can add to a green salad. Apples, cherries, berries-they're all fair game when I'm creating new salads these days. When I'm putting together a main course salad, I typically pick an ingredient from each of the following categories-protein (meat, beans, or tofu/seitan), cheese, and nuts, plus all the fruits and vegetables that fit into my theme (my side salads are typically just a collection of mass quantities of veggies).

The all-too-brief Door County cherry season is in full swing right now, and I while I've eaten mass quantities of plain sweet cherries, I thought I should would be remiss if I didn't work them into any recipes as well. The sweet cherries blend beautiful with the assertive red onion and creamy, tart goat cheese, with the pecans lending a crunchy, toasty, rich element to the salad. The grilled chicken is mostly present to make the salad more substantial and filling, but this salad could easily be made vegetarian by increasing the amount of nuts and cheese or substituting tofu for the chicken. This  late summer salad bridges the flavors of summer and fall, easing the transition from the bright, sunny glory days of summer to the crisp, cool, comforting fall season.

Cherry Pecan Chicken Salad
serves 2

8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast
8 ounces mixed salad greens
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup sweet cherries, halved and pitted
2 ounces crumbled goat cheese
1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans
Salad dressing, for serving (I like balsamic vinaigrette or honey mustard dressing)

1. Preheat a grill or grill pan over medium heat. Season both sides of the chicken breasts with salt and pepper. Cook chicken breast until internal temperature reaches 170 degrees F, remove from heat, and allow to rest for 5 minutes. Slice evenly into thin slices.

2. Meanwhile, wash and dry greens and chop, if necessary. Distribute greens evenly between two large plates, topping each with half of the red onion, cherries, goat cheese, and pecans. Add the sliced chicken to the top, drizzle with dressing, and enjoy!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Pineapple Skillet Upside-Down Cake

For the second year in a row, my husband has requested pineapple upside-down cake for his birthday cake. While I could have gone back to last year's recipe, which was a big hit, I prefer to use special occasions (and let's be honest, most meals) as an opportunity to seek out and try new recipes. I spent many lunch breaks searching for new pineapple upside-down cake recipes that sounded intriguing, but came across this gem completely by accident. I was paging through my Rick Bayless cookbooks looking for tomatillo recipes and stumbled upon this recipe in the dessert section because I end up paging through cookbooks like most people flip through magazines, unable to just look up specific recipes or ingredients. And what a happy accident it was! This cake has the sweet, caramelized topping that everyone loves so much in an upside-down cake, support by a nutty, moist cake. Not only is this cake a treat right out of the oven, but it stays moist and becomes saturated with delicious caramel flavor if you are lucky enough to have leftovers.

With plenty of berries, apples, peaches, and pears at the farmer's market, I'm already planning on making this again, although I might make a few changes, substituting turbinado sugar for the white sugar and using all whole wheat pastry flour instead of half all-purpose and half whole wheat flour. This versatile cake recipe is as appropriate for a special occasion like a birthday as a regular weeknight when you need a small treat to perk up the evening so take a few minutes to treat yourself and your family to this delicious, but not too decadent, dessert.

Pineapple (or Other Fruit) Skillet Upside-Down Cake
from Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless
serves 8

3 ounces (6 tablespoons) butter, preferably unsalted
1/2 cup packed brown sugar (I prefer the dark brown variety)
3 cups 1/2-inch cubed, cleaned pineapple (you'll need about three-quarters of a medium pineapple OR 3 cups (about 1 pound) fresh or IQF (individually quick frozen) raspberries, blackberries, blueberries or pitted cherries OR 3 cups 1/2-inch cubes apple, pear, peaches, nectarines or mango
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole wheat flour (or additional all-purpose flour)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup white sugar
1 "large" egg
3/4 cup buttermilk or plain yogurt

1. Turn on the oven to 375 degrees and position a rack in the middle. Melt the butter in a large (10-inch) skillet, with an ovenproof handle, preferably nonstick, over medium heat. Swirl the butter in the skillet until it turns nut-brown, then pout it into a medium bowl. Without wiping out the skillet, sprinkle the brown sugar evenly over the bottom. Top with the fruit in an even layer.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, salt, soda, and baking powder. Add the white sugar to the browned butter and whisk until thoroughly combined. Whisk in the egg, then the buttermilk or yogurt. Pour the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ones. Whisk to thoroughly combine.

3. Pour the batter evenly over the fruit in the skillet. Slide the skillet into the oven and bake about 35 minutes, until the cake is golden brown and springy to the touch at the center. Remove and let cool 10 minutes.

4. Invert a plate over the skillet, then, holding plate and skillet firmly together with towels or pot holders, invert the two in one swift movement. Remove the skillet, and the cake is ready to serve. It's best right out of the oven.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Shiitake, Sugar Snap, and Bok Choy Stir-Fry

When I was a kid, I had the cliched dislike of peas, and although I would sometimes even pick them out of soup, I always adored sugar snap and snow peas. As an adult, I still don't love plain peas, but can still gobble up massive quantities of any kind of peas in their pods (this is not an exaggeration-I have eaten an entire pound of sugar snap peas by myself in one sitting). And while I can't get enough of fresh, crunchy raw sugar snap peas, they also are one of my favorite stir-fry ingredients. Stir-fries can be carefully conceived dishes, or a quick and delicious way to use up odds and ends of vegetables, and this stir-fry is somewhere in between. I bought sugar snap peas with the intention of making some sort of stir-fry and fleshed out the recipe after picking up the other ingredients that simply struck my fancy at the farmers' market that I thought would go well with the sugar snap peas. The classic stir-fry Asian flavors of garlic, ginger, soy, and toasted sesame oil blend harmoniously with the fresh and crunchy peas and bok choy and earthy mushrooms and let the veggies take center stage in this dish. The next time you're staring at an odd collection of ingredients in the fridge or want to frame a dish around an ingredient that just looked too good to pass up at the farmers' market (my eternal problem), think no further than a stir-fry!

Shiitake, Sugar Snap Pea, and Bok Choy Stir-Fry
adapted from Food and Wine
serves 4

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
4 teaspoons toasted sesame oil 
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces shiitake or oyster mushrooms, sliced
1 pound baby bok choy, stalks cut into 1/2-inch pieces, leaves shredded
1/2 pound sugar snap peas
4 teaspoons soy sauce
2-4 cups cooked brown rice, for serving

1. In a small glass or stainless-steel bowl, combine the ginger, lemon juice, sesame oil, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, and the pepper. Set aside.
2. In a wok or a large nonstick frying pan, heat canola oil over moderately high heat. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add the bok-choy stalks and mushrooms and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the peas and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the soy sauce and cook, stirring, for 1 minute longer.
3. Add the bok-choy leaves and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt to the pan. Cook, tossing gently, until the leaves just wilt, 1 to 2 minutes. Add vinaigrette and toss to coat. Remove the pan from heat and serve warm over brown rice.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Italian Stuffed Peppers

I was really excited when I saw that bell peppers were making their first appearance at the farmers' market this summer, with my thoughts instantly drifting to stuffed peppers. Stuffed peppers can take on Mexican, Italian, or Mediterranean flavors, and there were so many possibilities that I failed to find pick out a recipe or pick up any specific ingredients before the night before that I was planning on making stuffed peppers for dinner. Taking a quick look through my freezer, fridge, and cabinets, I was able to find the makings for these delicious Italian-style stuffed peppers. Just like so many of my other favorite types of dishes to make, stuffed peppers have nearly infinite possibilities and allow you to use up all kinds of leftovers and odds and ends of ingredients you already have on hand. The Italian sausage and prepared marinara pack the peppers with flavor without any effort on your part, provided you have good sausage and sauce; I used sauce from R.P.'s Pasta Company and Italian sausage from Willow Creek Farm, both local companies that produce tons of fantastic products. Top that with rich, melty cheese and you have a dish that's sure to please nearly everyone. If you want to make this dish vegetarian navy or cannellini beans can be substituted for the Italian sausage, though you will be doing so at the expense of flavor.

I also try to make large batch of grains (brown rice, quinoa, etc.) and beans and freeze the extras so I have a blank palette ready to go in the freezer for a quick lunch or dinner anytime. Prepared grains and beans offer up the possibility of tons of delicious salads and wraps; I frequently combine them with veggies and sauce for nutritious, tasty lunches to bring to work. I keep enough different beans and grains in the freezer and veggies in the fridge that I never get bored with my lunch and don't have to sacrifice taste when I have little time to put a meal together for myself on a busy night. Letting some rice cook in the rice cooker or beans cook on the stove while doing other chores around the house is well worth the small sacrifice in time on the weekend to make the work week a bit more harried.
Italian Stuffed Peppers
serves 2

2 green or red bell peppers, halved, seeds and ribs removed
Canola oil cooking spray
4 ounces Italian sausage
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced or pressed through a garlic press
1 cup marinara sauce
1 cup cooked brown rice
2 slices provolone cheese, cut in half
1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. Cover a baking sheet with aluminum foil and spray with cooking spray. Place peppers, cut side down, on prepared baking sheet and spray top side lightly with cooking spray. Roast peppers, rotating baking sheet halfway through, until peppers are tender but not falling apart, about 10 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, preheat a pan over medium heat and add Italian sausage, breaking up any large pieces with a wooden spoon or spatula. Once the sausage has rendered some fat, add chopped onion and garlic and continue cooking until onions are translucent and soft, but not falling apart, about 9 to 12 minutes. Add brown rice and marinara sauce, stir well to combine, and continue cooking until mixture is heated through.

3. Divide rice mixture evenly among the four pepper halves (about 1/2 cup per pepper), top each with a half slice of provolone, return to the oven, and cook until cheese is melted and just starting to brown, about 4 to 6 minutes. Remove from the oven and serve hot.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Tuna, Potatoes, and Green Beans with Pesto

This recipe is my blend of the traditional Ligurian dish Trofie al Pesto and French classic Salad Ni├žoise. The farmers' market is full of beautiful small potatoes, fresh, crisp green beans, and big bags of fresh, fragrant basil, so this hybrid was just begging to be made. I bought green beans and potatoes specifically for this dish, but it is also a great way to use up leftovers. The hearty roasted potatoes and crispy green beans are brought together beautifully in fresh and rich pesto, becoming a complete meal with the addition of tuna. Although wonderful with still-warm vegetables, it is also terrific at room temperature and can be made ahead, perfect for summer meals. Subtract the tuna for a dynamite side dish, or combine just the tuna and pesto for a fresh new take on tuna salad. This simple, flavorful dish makes for an elegant summer dinner for two, a great dish to pack for a picnic or bring to a barbecue and is sure to become a new staple in your summer menu.

Tuna, Potatoes, and Green Beans with Pesto
serves 2

1.5 cups packed basil
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon pine nuts
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
One 5-ounce can tuna, drained
8 oz. haricots verts, trimmed and steamed to crisp-tender
8 oz. baby fingerling or red potatoes, halved and roasted

1. Make the pesto: Process basil, oil, cheese, nuts, and garlic in a food processor until finely ground. Season with salt and pepper; set aside.

2. Divide roasted potatoes evenly between two plates or bowls and top with half of the green beans. In a separate bowl, mix tuna and pesto together thoroughly and place half of the tuna mixture on top of each plate. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Fresh Corn and Zucchini Cakes

Although I could eat fresh corn on the cob with butter and pepper almost every day when it's in season, I do make an effort to find other recipes to appreciate one of my favorite foods in the world, and the second recipe my mind usually drifts to is corn fritters. Fritters and cakes made with a variety of produce is a great way to use some of summer's bounty, including the overabundance of summer squash at this time of year. I loaded up these cakes with corn, zucchini, red onion and a healthy helping of fresh dill for a light and flavorful cake, which I served with broccoli and over easy eggs, dragging the cake through the rich egg yolk for an unexpectedly decadent experience. These cakes are another one of those infinitely customizable dishes; lime juice and cilantro would make great substitutes for the lemon juice and dill, particularly with the addition of some scallions and/or black beans for a Mexican-inspired cake. Leftover cakes are also great even at room temperature and I wrapped mine up in a whole wheat tortilla with some greens and salsa for a fantastic lunch the following day. You can't really go wrong with fresh produce and herbs in the halcyon days of summer produce, so raid your local farmers' market and get creative!

Fresh Corn and Zucchini Cakes
adapted from Whole Foods
serves 4 (makes about 8 cakes)

2 large eggs
1/3 cup low-fat buttermilk or low-fat milk
1/3 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 cup fresh corn
1 cup grated zucchini
1/3 cup chopped red onion
1/3 cup chopped fresh dill
Zest of 1 lemon
Canola or olive oil cooking spray

1. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, buttermilk, flour, baking powder, salt and pepper until smooth. Add corn, zucchini, onion, dill and zest and stir until combined.

2. Preheat a large skillet over medium heat and spray with cooking spray. Working in batches, drop batter by 1/4-cup measures into skillet. Cook, turning once, until browned and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes per side; lower heat if pancakes begin to brown too deeply before middle is cooked through. Spray pan with additional oil between batches if necessary. Serve the pancakes warm or room temperature.