Sunday, March 8, 2015

Our favorite Chicken Casserole

Growing up Southern, I think a casserole can be the perfect dish...comforting, creamy and gooey, easy, complex, helpful to a friend who is ill, church covered dish, awesome to have stocked up in the freezer.  Now, my Southern-turned-Minnesotan husband doesn't always share these sentiments.  One the one hand, it was his Mama who told me "every great dish begins with a can of Cream of Mushroom."  But, on the other hand, apparently, up in the Norse Land, they put anything and everything together in a casserole dish and simply call it "Hot Dish."  Neil grew to hate the words "hot dish" as well as the concept of "hot dish."  According to him, that's all the info you dish.  No clue as to what was in there.  And, he says it all pretty much tasted the same...crappy.  At least down here we're specific enough to let you know it's chicken casserole, crab casserole, green bean casserole.

It was well into our relationship that my casserole-lovin' self was finally made aware of this hot dish disdain.  I was flabbergasted!  How can one not love a good casserole?  As the story unfolded, I began to understand.  To this day, I serve casseroles very sparingly to be sensitive to Neil's old hot dish memories.  BUT...there's one that defies this casserole conundrum of his.  My chicken-almond-rice casserole.  Yep, it's a good ol' Akre family favorite at this point.

Akre's Creamy Chicken Almond Rice Casserole
 Originally, I got this recipe from a Weight Watchers cookbook. I've been making it so long and have tweeked it over the years, including adding almonds.  It's one of the few dishes that we do repeat around here and every one of us loves it.  I made it again recently and it dawned on me that I've never told you guys about it.  At least I don't think I have! 

Chicken Almond Rice Casserole
2-3 good sized chicken breasts, cubed bite-size
1/2 tsp garlic powder (I just sprinkle it over 'til it looks right)
olive oil mixed with a coating of PAM

Low sodium Rice-a-Roni
1 Tbs butter
2 1/4 cups water

1 can reduced calorie Cream of Chicken soup
3/4 cup reduced fat sour cream
1 cup sliced mushrooms (if you're 'shroom people that is)
1/4 chopped almonds
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 cup crushed crackers, bread crumbs, etc.
1 Tbs melted butter
1/2 tsp poppy seeds 

So, here we go:  cook the Rice-a-Roni with the water & butter measurement above, according to package directions. While that's cooking, coat another skillet with PAM and a little olive oil. Season the chicken with garlic powder and saute until it loses its pinkness.  If you're using mushrooms, cook them here with the chicken.

Combine the chicken, rice, sour cream, soup, almonds and pepper in a bowl and mix well.  Spread into your casserole dish.  Melt the 1 Tbs butter and combine with crumbs & poppy seeds.  Sprinkle on top and bake at 350 for about 35 minutes. 
2-3 chicken breasts, whatever is right for you
Make them bite-sized
The San Francisco Treat!
Toasting up the rice
Mix it up, Baby!
Buttery, poppy seed topping
Sprinkle over the top
Ready for the 350 oven
Get your biggest serving spoon!

Most recently, I combined this with a simple, yet delicious side dish of honey-gingered carrots. I'd gotten these beautiful, young, tender carrots in my box and wanted to use them. They were so brilliantly orange & juicy little carrots.  
Aren't these beautiful?
Simmered with a little butter, honey & minced ginger
Our dinner!
Here's a warning:  when I make this casserole, the three of us can plow through almost 3/4 of it in one dinner.  I'm telling you, it's just that good.  If you don't like mushrooms, leave them out.  Can't eat nuts?  I've used water chestnuts for crunch and that works just as well as the almonds.  You can have fun with it.  I hope you'll try it and enjoy it as much as we do.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The best tuna recipe ever

I know this is rather monochromatic, but it was delicious!
Cooking tuna can be daunting.  Most people like it rare but I'm not one of those people. I like mine cooked just over rare, meaning still a little pink inside. This takes some practice but it's not impossible, to be sure.  What I've figured out is that if the tuna is about 1- 1 1/2 inches thick, I cook it for 3 minutes on the first side and 2 minutes on the second.  There, that's it.  Now you have no reason to be afraid anymore. Go buy some tuna.

Now, if you want to have really spectacular, awesome, mind-blowing tuna, then here's what you need to do. I got this from the Internet, I think. This makes enough for the three of us.

1 Tbs white wine vinegar
1/2 cup white wine
2 Tbs minced shallot
1 1/2 tsp wasabi paste (don't let this spook you)
1 1/2 tsp soy sauce
1/2 cup butter, cut into cubes
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
3 6 oz tuna steaks, about 1" thick

Simmer the vinegar, wine & shallots over medium heat until it reduces to a couple of Tablespoons.  Strain out the shallots & return liquid to the saucepan.  Add the wasabi & soy sauce.  Over low heat, add the butter one cube at a time, whisking it to emulsify. DON'T LET IT BOIL. When all the butter is incorporated, remove from heat and set aside.

Meanwhile, rub olive oil on the tuna and season with salt & pepper. Heat skillet over medium-high heat.  Place fish in the hot skillet and sear 3 minutes on first side, then 2 minutes on the flip side.  Of course, adjust this time if you like yours more rare or more done, although I wouldn't recommend going more toward done.

Serve with the wasabi butter spooned over the fish. 

You may want to serve pasta, potatoes or rice with this because the butter sauce is so fantastic. Most recently, we had this with wild rice and roasted cauliflower.  This sauce is dangerous, folks. I mean, you might find yourself wanting to just eat it with a spoon. I think it would also be wonderful with salmon or chicken.  And don't let the wasabi scare you off.  As it cooks, it mellows and just imparts a cool flavor.  It is NOT spicy at all.  So please don't let that ingredient prevent you from trying this dish.  I promise you that you'll love it!

Would love to hear your comments below after you try it. If you don't love this dish then I'll tap dance down Main Street wearing a rainbow afro. That's how confident I am that you'll love it.  Bon Appetit!

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Cooking is good for the soul(s)

I love to cook.  It started in high school.  French club, I think.  My school's French club hosted a "French cafe" each year but all it offered was croissants and other pastries.  When I became French club president, I reasoned "hey, it's either a cafe or it's not..." Therefore, I pulled out my mom's International cookbook, selected a savory crepe recipe, a quiche, a side dish (I can't really remember now but I think it was some preparation of green beans) and a dessert.  My club divided up into teams for cooking, loaded my parents' microwave into my '74 Volkswagen and set up a real cafe in the courtyard.  We sold lunch plates and made a killing.  

Here I am a "few" years later and I've been cooking ever since.  I enjoy it.  I like it for many's therapeutic for me, I like to take care of others through food and I really, really like to try to  impress my husband.  And then there's our daughter, who I want to feed healthily and have her develop a sophisticated palate.  We're well on the way with that, thank God.

Unfortunately, one of our friends was recently found to have cancer.  She is young and healthy, has a beautiful one year old baby and a husband who loves her.  She's been started on chemo right away and is on medical leave.  She is in good hands... 

I wanted to prepare something that they could keep in the freezer and just pop in the oven on those days when she doesn't feel well and her husband doesn't want to fool with the kitchen. I decided to go with The Pioneer Woman's lasagna rolls. I really love her site and so many of her recipes are just awesome.  I made enough for 4 meals for our friends and one for us. I had leftover filling and a little bit of sauce, so I stuffed some shells for our dinner.

So, on to the lasagna...

Getting all the ingredients ready to rock & roll
I am an herb-chopping machine

This is about 2 lbs of hamburger and chopped onion
The sauce is simmering away.  Smells divine!
Since these are rolled, you must cook them first
Spread the ricotta/parmesan mixture on the noodle
Roll 'em up!
Four rolls will fit in a standard size loaf pan
Look at all these...from ONE recipe!
Everything is better with cheese on top
Using up the leftover filling & sauce for our dinner
Stuffed shells ready for the oven
Call me an old Southern girl but food is what I do when someone has a problem.  Making these dishes was fun for me and I felt really happy about the possibility that these lasagnas might make life a little easier for our friends as they go through this tough time.  Food is more than fuel for the body. That's what I think anyway. 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

We Love Dumplings!

 I started making wontons back in high school.  My mom had come across a recipe for "Tex-Mex Wontons" and we made them for pretty  much every party we hosted.  In essence, it was taco meat folded into a wonton skin and fried. They were awesome.

After college, my friend Susannah showed me how she makes her famous dumplings.  You may call them potstickers. Do you know the reason they call them that? If you steam a wonton skin, it becomes soft, pliable and kind of gummy.  So, they will stick to a pot in a heartbeat unless you know what you're doing. So what do you do?  You fry the bottoms of your dumplings in a thin layer of oil until they are crispy.  Then, carefully (very, very carefully) add water to the pan and cover it quickly to steam.  The fried bottom keeps the dumpling from sticking to your pot.  Skip this step and you have one stuck-to-the-pot fiasco.

So, ever since Susannah taught me this technique, I've been making my own.  They are ridiculously easy and so darn tasty.

Tonight's batch started with about a pound of ground pork.  I grated ginger and garlic over the meat, added chopped green onion and chopped water chestnuts.  Then I added just a little soy sauce for flavor and mixed it all up with my hands. 

Then, I placed about 2 teaspoons of meat into the center of my wonton wrapper, wet the edges with water and just twisted them up.  

Like I said, heat a thin layer of oil in a skillet with a good fitting lid.  Fry the bottoms of the dumplings until they are browned and easily lift from the skillet.  Next, add about 1/4 cup of water.  I shield myself with the lid as I add the water to prevent spatter and then cover it quickly.  Let steam a couple of minutes and that's all she wrote.

I like to mix up a dipping sauce of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar and some sliced green onion.  Simple and delicious.

Tonight, I served the dumplings with a vegetable fried rice, using peas, carrots, green beans, onions and scrambled egg.

This is a great way to spice up dinner at home and you can make big batches and freeze these little babies for another day. And, just like stir-fry or fried rice, you can make your dumpling filling with pretty much whatever you have available: ground pork, turkey, chicken. Ginger & garlic, green onion, carrot, bean sprouts, you name it.  Don't let this simple dish not make its way into your home.  So very easy and something interesting on the plate.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My Julie & Julia Project

Who doesn't love the movie "Julie & Julia?" If you're a cook, I think you have to love it. If you eat, you have to love it.  Am I right?  As a kid, I didn't watch much Julia Child. I remember just thinking that she was a frumpy, shrill-voiced old grandma type, which didn't interest me at all. However, my husband loved watching her so his impression is quite different. What this movie did for me was to educate me to what a truly unique, interesting and forward-thinking woman she was. 

After watching it yet again recently, I got to thinking about another cookbook of mine.  I have referred to it before. It's called Dinner Tonight and it was published in 2003 by the people.  

I was selling a house for a lady and went by one day to check in on her.  She had begun packing her house up and in her dining room I found stacks and stacks of cookbooks up against the wall.  When she said she was throwing them out, I said "Whoa, lady, back the truck up!"  You could hear the squeal of the brakes in my head.  Throw away a cookbook?  What foul blasphemy is this? So I rescued this one and a few others from the stacks and couldn't be more happy about this fortuitous encounter.

This cookbook is my super-#1-fandango-favorite.  If  you're unfamiliar with, go look it up now.  Real, regular ol' people like you and me post their recipes on the site. Once one of the rest of us make it, we rate & review it.  So back in 2003, the owners of the site decided to publish the highest rated recipes on their website.  There you have it. What I love about this book is that it's a collection of their best. Every recipe I've tried has worked and has been really awesome.  This is what lead me to decide that I will make any recipe in this book, even if it doesn't sound all that good at first glance.  I learned this lesson with the "chicken breasts Pierre."

One of my recents was "blackened shrimp Stroganoff." 

I went light on the blackening because of the little gourmand, but next time, I'm going to ramp up the spice.  I loved this dish for a few reasons.  First, so often when I think I'd like a hot, creamy pasta, this is what I see in my head.  Delicious shrimp with tangy sour creaminess, capers, roasted red pepper all tangled up in some noodles.  Add a hunk of crusty bread, maybe a little Caesar salad on the side and you have the perfect pasta supper.  The blackening seasoning paired with the creamy Stroganoff sauce is a sublime marriage of flavors that probably would have never thought to put together. And, of course, you can never go wrong with shrimp!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Our Low-Key New Year's Eve

I am not a NYE fan.  I was somewhere in my 20's when I realized this. For some reason, New Year's Eve has always made me think of all the people I knew who are no longer here. So, that's one reason.  Then, at some NYE "celebration" on the rooftop at the Vendue Inn in Charleston, I realized that the only celebration was the bar owner's bank deposit he'd be making the next day while I was here in this crowded ass bar full of drunks clamoring for their free glass of champagne.  As I raised mine to my lips, I instantly exclaimed something like "what a ripoff!" as I realized that I hadn't been given a glass of champagne, but rather a glass of Asti Spumante.  Obviously, I wasn't expecting a glass of Dom, but at least a cheap champagne. Asti is rank.  Asti doesn't belong on this planet.  Asti must die.  Free glass of this crap? Happy Freakin' New Year.

Then, of course there are the drunks to contend with.  Not only do you have to deal with them in person, but then wonder if one of them will take you out on the way home.  Plus, who wants to roll the dice on a random license stop or some cop blue lighting you on a missing tail light? All of these examples illustrate why I really don't care for New Year's Eve.

Instead, we prefer to cook good food, drink wine and blow shit up in the street (fireworks, friends.)  We are fortunate enough to live about 1/4 mile from a 365 day/year fireworks store. So, we hit Jim Casey's and stock up on as much fire power as we can afford (justify.) My child talked me into 3' long sparklers.  Sparklers? I like stuff that shoots up in the air and blossoms.  But I said ok, then much to my chagrin looked at the receipt in the car to realize the kid had talked me into $7 sparklers.  Oyyy.

So, on to the food.  We did a simple yet delicious dinner this year.  I have fallen in love with Paul Prudhomme's "salmon seasoning."  It's just so good and it makes the salmon quick and easy to cook and packs on the flavor.  So, I drizzled our salmon fillets with butter then sprinkled very liberally with the seasoning.  You merely bake them at 450 for 6 minutes.  To this I added steamed broccoli and a simple parmesan risotto, but I jazzed it up by sauteing my onion with truffle oil. 

Seasoned and ready for the oven

Baked salmon, truffled parmesan risotto & steamed broccoli
So, we've promised the little one that she can stay up until midnight and see the ball drop...she's 8 after all.  We'll meet our neighbor out in the street in a little while to blow some stuff up and sip our wine. Happy New Year to you all.  I am not a resolution person but if you are, just resolve to cook your own food and eat well!


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