Wherein I am Not Mary Poppins. Or Martha Stewart. {Fish Chowder}

On any given day in our house you’re likely to find piles of laundry, kitchen counters with food dried on them, cat and dog hair gathered in the corners of the common rooms and dirty dishes piled in the sink.  It’s not pretty, but it’s our life.  Two growing boys, two working parents, and a multitude of furry pets does not always an idyllic household make. I’d like to tell you that I have a cleaning scheduled that I adhere to, and that my children are conscientious about picking up after themselves and putting their dirty clothes in the hamper regularly (rather than tossing their dirty socks haphazardly in the air, allowing them to land wherever they may).  I’d like to appear to have it all together, but that would be a lie.

The truth is, sometimes I’m a mess.  I stress out when I know people are coming over, worried that they’re going to judge me and my disorganized house.  I long to be Mary Poppins – to just snap my fingers and have everything go back to its rightful place.  My mother used to joke that, as her only child, I was “practically perfect in every way.”  Sadly, that description does not come with a magic carpet bag full of delightful tricks and the ability to sing your cares (and your cluttered play-rooms) away.  fish chowder1

I’ve come to realize, in my almost 40 years, that we all have our strengths.  While some of us are excellent housekeepers; others of us are decidedly not. I, clearly, fall into the latter category. However, I am not completely devoid of domestic talents.  I may not have the ability to decorate impeccably or organize seamlessly; but, by God, I can cook.  fish chowder4

This fish chowder has found its way into regular rotation at our dinner table.  It’s super simple to put together, and the flavor is incredible.  It’s adapted from this Martha Stewart recipe.  I may not have all of Martha’s talents (or, rather, those of her staff), but I can certainly recognize a good recipe when I see one.

fish chowder2

Fish Chowder

Prep time: 10 Minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Yields: 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 2 stalks celery, finely diced
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely diced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced or grated
  • 2 Tablespoons flour
  • 2 cups stock (chicken, vegetable or fish)
  • 1 1/2 pounds of russet potatoes peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 wild-caught flounder fillets (or other flaky white fish)
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup milk (you can also omit the cream and use 1 cup of milk instead)
  • salt and pepper to taste

fish chowder3

  1. Melt butter in a large saucepan
  2. Add celery, onion and garlic.  Saute until softened
  3. Add the flour and stir to coat with the butter.  Cook until it starts to smell nutty (do not let it get too brown)
  4. Add the stock and stir to combine.  Allow to come to a boil.
  5. Add the bay leaf and the potatoes and reduce to a simmer.  Cover and cook for 10 minutes, or until potatoes are cooked through.
  6. Add the fish and simmer until it’s cooked through and begins to flake apart when stirred
  7. Add the cream/milk and salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Enjoy!

Almost a Year Later….{Pretzel Bread Bowls}

I had no idea last February that I would be taking nearly a year off from this place.  It wasn’t planned, it just sort of happened.  Life got busy, and at the same time I lost the compulsion to document every meal I cooked or ate.  Every so often I’d come over here with the intention to write something, but I didn’t really have the focus or the drive to actually do it.

Meanwhile, I started working full time at a job that I have grown to truly enjoy.  I do a lot of writing there, and am allowed to be creative and somewhat autonomous, and I think that has filled the space that used to be filled by my efforts here.  Maybe.

I want to keep coming here, though, and sharing with those of you who still check in from time to time.  It may not always be recipes or food, but I’ll do my best to make it meaningful.  I’ve got lots of fun projects on the horizon in my life: I’m leading the team that’s planning a learning garden at the school I work for, I got a Vitamix for Christmas that I’m having a blast learning to use, I’m heading to Ireland with the family in April, and I’m still trying new things in the kitchen from time to time in an effort to expand and enrich my children’s food vocabulary.  So thanks for sticking around and for being patient as I try to figure out how to balance everything that’s going on.

vitamix1So, the Vitamix.  I’d been wanting one for a while, and finally bit the bullet and bought a Certified Reconditioned model.  I’ve only had it for a couple of days, but so far I LOVE IT.  Tonight I made the Harvest Cheddar Soup from the Vitamix website.  It’s crazy – the blender actually cooks the soup.  I didn’t really believe it myself until I tried it.  It’s like magic – ingredients go in cold or room temperature and come out steaming hot.  Right now I’m just trying recipes that are from the cookbook that came with it, or that are on their website.  Knowing me, though, I’m sure I’ll be making stuff up in no time.  No worries – I’ll do my best to share that stuff here.

breadbowlreadyIn the meantime, here’s something fun that I made to go along with that Harvest Cheddar soup – Whole Grain Pretzel Bread Bowls.  I used the Beer Pizza Dough recipe from my breadmaker’s cookbook as a jumping off point.

Whole Grain Pretzel Bread Bowls

yield: 6 bowls

  • 12 oz. beer
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons butter
  • 3 Tablespoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 3/4 cups whole wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • Egg white (for glazing)
  • Course salt

This recipe starts in the bread machine, but is baked in the oven.  If you don’t have a bread machine, you can use an electric mixer or knead by hand.

breadbowldough

  1. Place beer, butter, sugar and  salt in the bottom of the bread machine’s loaf pan
  2. Add the flour on top.
  3. Create a small well in the center of the flour.  Add the yeast to the well
  4. Set the machine to the “dough” setting and let it do its thing (mine takes about 2 hours for kneading and two rises)
  5. When it’s done with the second rise, turn the dough out onto a floured surface.
  6. Divide the dough into six equal portions and roll them into balls
  7. Place them on a baking sheet lined with a silicone liner or greased foil
  8. Allow them to rise while you preheat the oven to 375F
  9. Brush the tops of the rolls with egg white and sprinkle them with course salt
  10. Just before baking, slash the tops of the rolls in a cross pattern using a sharp knife
  11. Bake at 375F for 25 minutes, or until tops are very brown and they sound hollow when you tap them.

breadbowlcutOnce they’ve cooled most of the way, cut the tops off using a serrated knife.  Set the top aside (it’s good for dipping in soup later).

breadbowlspoonScoop the insides out with a spoon.  I put all the bread that scraped out into a zip-top bag and put it in the freezer to use later for bread crumbs.

breadbowlreadyEt, voila! 6 individual bread bowls just waiting to be filled with Harvest Cheddar-y goodness.

breadbowlwithsoupThese would also be good as little bowls for dips, filled with chilli, cheese fondue, or just about anything else that you might like to dip bread in.  They were a big hit with my family, and are a fun way to make soup a little more interesting (you get to eat the bowl at the end!).

 

The Bitten Word Cover to Cover Challenge {Beet Salad}

If you worry that Autumn signals the end of bright, colorful salads, then you clearly haven’t tried this one.

The boys over at The Bitten Word brought this salad to my attention.  A couple of weeks ago, they decided to include their readers in an October food magazine cover to cover challenge.  They had a huge response, and found themselves with the daunting task of assigning 350 recipes from 6 of their favorite food magazines.  I was assigned to Team Food Network Magazine, specifically this No-Cook Beet-Orange Salad from the latest edition.

Raw beets remind me a lot of raw corn – they’re very sweet, earthy, and a little starchy.  The creamy, tangy goat cheese is a nice accompaniment, along with the sharp bite of the vinegar and the crunchy nuttiness of the pepitas.  If you think you don’t like beets, try them raw – you might change your mind.

Luckily, I’m a fan of beets, so this salad was right up my alley.  The original calls for chioga or golden beets, but I was only able to find golden and red when I went to the store the other day.  The only downside to this is that red beets stain EVERYTHING, so it’s best to add them at the very end to avoid turning your whole salad pink.  I also used toasted pumpkin seeds in place of the Marcona almonds because we’re a mostly tree-nut-free household.

Having a mandolin is certainly beneficial here, but it’s by no means a requirement.  You want to slice your beets paper thin, so if you use a knife make sure it’s super sharp.

You’ll need three oranges for this recipe – one to juice, and two to segment.  If you need to learn how to supreme an orange, this is a good tutorial from Coconut & Lime.

No-Cook Beet-Orange Salad

adapted from Food Network Magazine, October 2012

prep time: 20 minutes

yields: 4-6 servings

Ingredients

  • 3 beets, sliced very thinly on a mandolin
  • 2 oranges, supremed
  • 2 cups fresh parsley, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
  • 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
  • 2 oz. goat cheese, crumbled
  • 2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Whisk together the orange juice, vinegar, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper
  2. Combine the beets, oranges and herbs in a shallow serving bowl
  3. Dress with the dressing
  4. Garnish with goat cheese and pumpkin seeds
  5. Enjoy!

{not} Philly {not} Cheese {not} Steak

This is a post about something that isn’t at all what it claims to be.  Does that even make sense?  It’s a Philly Cheesesteak that’s not made in Philadelphia and doesn’t contain steak or (anything you can legally call) cheese.

So, yeah, it involves processed cheese food product.  Sue me.  Sometimes I feel the need to fall back on childhood favorites and flavors.

A couple of months ago, my husband mentioned that he wanted a “chicken Philly Cheesesteak” for dinner.  First of all – how can it be a cheeseSTEAK if it’s made with chicken?  Second of all – I’d been trying to avoid purchasing processed foods, and American “Cheese” and Cheez Whiz – two commonly used ingredients in traditional Philly Cheesesteaks – are among the most processed foods you can buy.

As an aside – did you know that you can buy organic American cheese? Also, according to America’s Test Kitchen, you can make it at home.

Anyway – I decided to give it a whirl.  I grew up eating cheesesteaks made with beef (when I was little, my mom and I would go about once a month to this little hole-in-the-wall place that was near our house and get the mushroom cheesesteak.  I’m sure it wasn’t authentic, given that it was in a suburban shopping center in Marietta, GA, but I have very fond memories of that place.  I would watch the guy chopping away on the flat-top grill, mesmerized by the little piles of meat and cheese all lined up just so), so I wasn’t really sure how this chicken version was going to taste.

First, I began by softening a cup of thinly sliced onion and a cup of thinly sliced bell pepper in a tablespoon of oil.  I let it cook down slowly, getting good and caramelized (I just got in a hurry and typed that last word “caramilized” and one of the spell checker’s suggestions for a replacement was militarized.  Spell check is weird).

I removed the softened onions and peppers from the pan, and added about a pound of thinly sliced chicken breast meat (seasoned with salt and pepper) to the pan.  I let it go until it was nice and browned on all sides.  Then I removed the chicken from the pan.

To make individual sandwiches, I added between two and three ounces of chicken back to the pan, along with a little bit of the onion and pepper mixture.  I used a pastry scraper (or a flat spatula) to chop the mixture into smaller pieces.

I covered that with a slice (or two) of cheese (yes, I’m using processed cheese – you can use provolone if it makes you feel better.  Just know it doesn’t melt as nicely) and poured about a quarter cup of water into the pan.  I covered this with a lid to let it steam and allowed the cheese to melt.  Once the cheese started to melt, I uncovered the pan and used my pastry scraper/spatula to mix everything together – the little bit of water that’s left in the pan helped to make a nice sauce (plus it deglazed the pan nicely – adding all that good brown flavor to the mix).

I piled the whole thing into a whole-wheat roll and topped it with a few slices of fresh jalapeno.  I like things spicy, so feel free to omit that last bit if you’re averse to heat.  Served with a cold beer, it was mighty tasty.

So, you know, NOT a Philly cheesesteak per se, but something that mimics it pretty well.  And my husband and kids thought it was pretty good, too.

Chicken Cheese{not}steak

prep time: 10 minutes

cook time: 20 minutes

yields: 4-6 sandwiches

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. chicken breast meat, thinly sliced into strips
  • 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon cooking oil (olive or grapeseed)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 4-6 slices mild white cheese (Provolone or American are traditional)
  • 4-6 whole wheat hoagie rolls
  1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat
  2. Add the oil and the sliced onions and peppers.  Cook until softened and caramelized – about 10 minutes.  Remove from pan.
  3. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and add to the pan.  Cook until browned on all sides and cooked through – about 8 minutes. Remove from pan.
  4. Add 2-3 ounces of cooked chicken and some of the onions and peppers back to the pan.  Chop into smaller pieces using a flat spatula.
  5. Add a slice of cheese.  Pour a little water in the pan and cover to steam.
  6. Remove lid and use spatula to mix everything together.  If there’s still too much water in the pan, let it cook a bit longer to evaporate.
  7. Scoop it all into a split hoagie roll.
  8. Repeat with remaining chicken, onions, cheese and rolls.
  9. Enjoy!

Oh!  One more thing – sometimes I saute a bunch of sliced cremini mushrooms along with my onions and peppers.  Actually, I really prefer to do this – those mushrooms just add a depth of flavor that you don’t get otherwise.  I just forgot to get any at the store the day I made these.  I’ve been thinking you could do a vegetarian version just using mushrooms, onions and peppers – I don’t think I’d miss the meat.

Nice: Salade Niçoise

Yesterday, before the sun had risen too high in the sky and pushed the temperatures into the stratosphere, I wandered down to the garden, toddler in tow.  As the 18-month old chased the chickens (bock-bocks as he calls them) in and around the cypress trees, I examined the various plants to see if any were bearing fruit.

Two of our ten tomato plants are laden with green orbs, and the two jalapeno bushes are weighted down with inch-and-a-half long pods.  The butternut squash vines are in full bloom, and many of the blossom ends are beginning to swell with the promise of delicious golden flesh.  Our infant asparagus patch has successfully gone to seed, and our cucumbers are rife with fuzzy little fingerlings.  The lacy tops of the rainbow carrots are waving in the breeze, and the melons are creeping along the ground stealthily, their little yellow flowers smiling smugly in the sun.

Continue reading “Nice: Salade Niçoise”

>Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Deconstructing the Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich

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Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men. And me. 

I’d been devising this meal in my mind for a while.  I had grand plans of how exciting and interesting it would be.  It would be a fabulous lesson detailing where our food comes from and how it transforms from raw ingredients to finished product on the table.  It would make Jaime Oliver proud.
But then life happened.
First, the family we’d invited to participate with us had to cancel – last minute change of plans.  Still, I figured our family could still get out there and go strawberry picking on Saturday morning.  
WRONG – we were awoken at 5:30 AM to the sound of severe thunderstorms and tornado sirens. This was after we’d already been startled awake at 4:00 AM by a sheepish four-year-old who’d had too much water to drink before bed and had managed to sleep through his nighttime bathroom visit.  Or lack thereof.  Sleepy is what we were.  And without strawberries.

Luckily, this type of lesson is one I try to teach on a regular basis.  Here’s a photo of all of us out picking strawberries at a local farm a couple of years ago.

My little guy loved strawberries from the get-go, so it was difficult to keep him from eating them before they went in the buckets. 

So, although the glamour has been stripped from my deconstructed meal, I still think it’s valuable for my family to see that food is more than a jumble of ingredients in a jar or bag.  
So, sleep deprived and somewhat deflated, I went to the store and found the prettiest and most local strawberries they had.  My four-year old accompanied me and was oh-so-excited to see the beautiful red berries going into our cart.  I also purchased some local raw peanuts for the peanut-butter.  The little one wanted to open them right up and start chowing down and couldn’t understand why I told him he had to wait.  The idea that peanuts don’t automatically come to us roasted and salted was beyond him.
When I got home, I got out the ingredients to make the bread.  I decided to do white sandwich bread, since that is probably the most widely accepted base on which to spread the peanut butter and jelly.  I wanted this to be as homespun and traditional as possible, you see. 
Ingredients for White Sandwich Bread:
1 package or 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water
4-5 cups all purpose flour
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon shortening
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon salt
I began by dissolving the yeast in 1/4 cup water.  3 cups of flour went in the bowl of my electric mixer, fitted with the dough-hook attachment.  The remaining ingredients I heated on the stovetop in a saucepan until the solid fats melted and the salt and sugar dissolved.  I added the dissolved yeast to the flour in the bowl and turned the mixer on to incorporate.   Once the milk mixture had cooled a bit, I added this to the flour mixture and turned the mixer on high.  Once the liquid had been incorporated, the dough was still quite sticky, so I added another cup of flour.  This proved to be enough flour, so I didn’t add the last cup.  I let the mixer run for 10-12 minutes on high to knead the dough.

 Once the dough was smooth and elastic, I removed it from the mixer bowl, formed it into a ball and placed it in an oiled bowl and covered it with plastic wrap.  I set it in a warm corner of my kitchen and forgot about it (or let it rise, however you want to look at it).

Meanwhile, I began to make my strawberry jam.  First, I placed my jelly jars in a large stock pot, along with the lid rings and covered everything with water by an inch.  I brought this to a boil on the stovetop.  This sterilized the jars.  For the actual lids, I placed these in heat-proof bowl and covered them with boiling water to sterilize and soften the seals a bit.

Ingredients for Strawberry Jam:

4 cups ripe strawberries, hulled
4 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

I crushed the berries and added them to 4 cups of sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan.  I stirred to mix and brought the mixture to a hard boil.

I let this boil until it reached 220F on a candy thermometer, and then I added the lemon juice.  I let it boil a little longer, just to thicken a bit more, then I removed it from the heat.

I removed the jars from the boiling water bath and emptied them of any remaining water.  I carefully filled the jars with the strawberry mixture (it was enough for two pint jars) and placed the lids on them.  I loosely screwed the rings on and put them back in the boiling water bath.  Making sure the water was  still boiling, I let them boil for 5 minutes.  Once the 5 minute mark had passed, I removed them and let them cool on the counter, listening carefully for the “pop” from the lids sealing.  Once they had cooled, I made sure the rings were screwed on tightly.
This was a very loose jam, but quite tasty. It would make a wonderful ice-cream topping.  It soaked into the bread very nicely.
While the jars were cooling, I made the peanut butter.

Ingredients for Peanut Butter:

1 pound raw, blanched peanuts
salt to taste
a bit of Stevia
Preheat your oven to 350F.  Place the raw peanuts on a foil-lined baking sheet and place them in your preheated oven.  Let them roast for 15 or 20 minutes, or until you detect the distinct scent of roasted peanuts.  Just be careful not to let them burn – scorched peanut butter isn’t so tasty.
Place the warm peanuts in the bowl of your food processor and turn it on.  You may have to shake it periodically as it runs to make sure the all the peanuts get equal time next to the blades.  It will magically turn into peanut butter before your very eyes.  Add salt to taste.  I added a bit of stevia just for a little sweetness, but that’s certainly not necessary.

Now all that was left was finishing the bread.  It had doubled in volume at this point, so I punched it down and rolled it out into a rectangle.  This I rolled to fit into a well-oiled loaf pan and covered it again with plastic wrap.  I let it rise, again in a warm spot in the kitchen, until it had once again double in volume.  Then I baked it in a 350F oven for about 20-25 minutes.

Once it cooled, the sandwiches were ready to be assembled.  I sliced the bread into 1/2 inch slices and slathered one side with peanut butter and one side with jelly.  Sandwich together and slice (diagonally, of course).

Consume.

Repeat if desired.

The little guy really enjoyed his – you can always tell when he closes his eyes while he eats.  It’s fun to see him savoring food this way.  I can already see that he’s becoming appreciative of food in a meaningful way.

I encourage you to explore where your food comes from, and teach your children to do the same.  They will be much more willing to try new things, and they will respect their food as more than just something to consume.  They will become invested in what goes into their little bodies, and they will become equipped to make healthy choices throughout their lives.

Thank you to Foodbuzz for allowing me to share our family’s journey toward a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle during this month’s 24, 24, 24 event.  Even though unforeseen circumstances prevented us from the full experience of farm to table dining, we were still able to make the best of the situation by using fresh, local ingredients to create a simple but delicious meal.

Enjoy!

>Really choosy moms….

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…choose to make their own peanut butter.
I know I’m behind the times.  I mean, everyone probably already makes their own peanut butter – right?  The fact that I continue to purchase hydrogenated and corn-syrup sweetened peanut butter for my family is just a sin – right?
I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to finally realize the error of my ways, but it has.  I mean, I would occasionally buy natural peanut butter when it was on sale (and when I was consciously thinking about it), but it was always more expensive than what I really wanted to pay. 
For some reason, though, the other day I just had a revelation.  Maybe it’s the fact that this month, Foodbuzz is featuring peanuts as their flavor of the month.  Or maybe it has to do with my ever-increasing desire to make things from scratch.  I don’t know what it was, exactly, that finally drove me to it – but yesterday I went to the grocery store and bought two pounds of raw Virginia peanuts for the express purpose of making peanut butter.

It’s simple enough, really.  Begin by toasting your peanuts.  I just spread my two pounds out on a foil-lined half-sheet pan and stuck them in a 350F oven for about 40 minutes.  Then I let them cool slightly.  
 Then I put them in the food processor (in two batches).
 First they looked like this
Then they looked like this
And finally, they looked like this (after 3-5 minutes)
At this point, I tasted the paste for flavor and decided it needed some salt, so I added a couple of healthy pinches and let it run about 10 seconds more.  Then I spread it on some homemade whole-wheat bread and shared it with the 4-year-old.
He declared it a success.
Surprisingly, two pounds of peanuts makes about 4 cups of peanut butter (32 oz. by volume).  I think I paid about $5.00 for my two pounds of peanuts, so that’s not so bad.  It’s definitely better for us – and now I have the satisfaction of knowing exactly what’s in our peanut butter.
So, if you haven’t already (this is me hoping I’m not the last person on the planet to make her own peanut butter), I encourage you to try making your own peanut butter – or almond butter, or hazelnut butter, or any other kind of nut butter you desire.  It’s really so easy, and the end result is much better than anything you can buy.
Enjoy!

>The World’s Greatest Sandwich?

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I don’t know that I’d go that far (there are a LOT of great sandwiches in the world), but I’d have to say it’s right up there with the best of them.
Have you ever seen the movie Spanglish with Adam Sandler, Tea Leoni and Paz Vega?  It’s one of my husband’s and my favorite movies.  Adam Sandler is so unassuming in it – his comic side is so subdued – you just can’t help but empathize with his character.

There’s a scene where Adam Sandler’s character makes this sandwich – a combination of bacon, egg, lettuce, tomato, cheese and bread – for Paz Vega’s character.  It’s a somewhat innocent scene, but there are some sensual undertones to it that are unmistakable.  The sandwich itself is fairly simple, but the combination of great fresh ingredients coupled with the rich buttery golden yolk of the egg and the crispy bacon makes it undeniably irresistible. After we saw the movie, we got right on the internet and looked up the recipe.  I know – who looks for a recipe for a sandwich?  It’s just stuff piled on bread.  But we wanted to know what exactly went into this one.  I mean, they created an entire extra segment on the dvd devoted to this sandwich – it must be good.

As it turned out, they had put the recipe on the movie website.  So, we printed it out and proceeded to rush right out and buy the ingredients.  Since then, we make it for dinner at least once every-other month or so.
We’ve made a couple of modifications based on personal preference (we used cheddar instead of monterey jack, and bibb lettuce in place of butter; oh, and two eggs instead of one), but essentially we’ve stayed true to the original.  Here’s the recipe as it appeared on the Sony Pictures website:

 
 

>Grilled Cheese with Sharp Cheddar and Apple

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I have this loaf of whole-wheat sandwich bread I need to use.

Looking in the fridge, there was big ol’ block of sharp Vermont cheddar and some crisp Gala apples.

And some butter, of course.

What else, other than a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch?

Two slices whole-wheat bread, four or five thin slices of apple, two slices cheddar cheese, butter for grilling.

Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Add butter to melt.  Build sandwich – one slice bread, one slice cheese, apple slices, another slice of cheese, top with other slice of bread.  Put the sandwich in the skillet and weigh down with another skillet, or something similarly heavy (if you have a panini press, it would come in handy here).  When it’s brown on the first side, flip it over, weigh it down again and let brown on the second side.  Lower heat if necessary to allow cheese to melt before bread gets too brown.

Enjoy!

>Cuban Sandwiches with Black Beans

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I just got back from a whirlwind trip to Florida for a long-overdue graduation party.  Generally, while I’m visiting family in the Tampa Bay area, I try to grab some authentic Cuban food – Sandwich Cubano and Black Beans and Rice.  This time, though, our time was at a premium and we just didn’t have the time to indulge our craving.
When I got home, I knew that I would be searching my cookbook collection for a recipe that would satisfy my taste-buds.  Thank goodness for Mark Bittman.  Once again he came through, although this time it was his The Best Recipes in the World that I turned to.  There was a recipe for Cuban Sandwiches in How to Cook Everything, but I knew by looking at it that it wasn’t authentic (it called for pork or ham, but not both).
Now, I rarely do anything the easy way, so I will tell you right now that you certainly don’t have to bake your own bread for these sandwiches, nor do you need to slow cook your pork.  You could even use canned black beans instead of dried.  The recipe wouldn’t be as inexpensive, but you could certainly take these easier routes to a delicious end product.

I started with Bittman’s recipe for Black Beans with Garlic and Cumin.  I loved this recipe, because it’s done in one pot.  I didn’t even soak the beans beforehand – just threw everything into one pot and let it cook for about 3 hours.  The end product was extremely flavorful.  I took one pound of dried black beans, 2 crushed garlic cloves, 1/2 medium onion, and a tablespoon of ground cumin, covered it all with water and let it come to a boil.  I reduced the heat to a simmer and let it go.  When the beans were tender, I added salt and pepper to taste.  The recipe called for epazote, which I didn’t have, so I omitted it.
I used a recipe I already had for the pork in the sandwiches.  I’d made cuban sandwiches once before, and found a recipe online that I really like.  It calls for you to cook your pork (2-3 pound shoulder) in a mixture of orange juice (2/3 cup), lime juice (1./3 cup), onions (2 medium – quartered), garlic (2 cloves, crushed), cumin (1 tablespoons) and bay leaves (2).
Bittman’s recipe calls for the pork to be roasted and sliced, but I chose to shred mine.  Flavor-wise, it’s very similar, this just allows for a more tender end-product.
The pork gets cut into one-inch cubes, and all of the ingredients are put in a pot.  Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer.  Allow to cook 1-2 hours, until meat is tender.  Remove the meat from the cooking liquid and shred it with a fork.  Remove the bay leaves and return the meat to the pot.  Turn the heat up to high and cook it at a rapid boil until the liquid is reduced and the meat starts to brown.
I had some ham in my freezer that I had cooked over the holidays.  I let this thaw and come to room temperature and used this as my second meat in the sandwich.
To be truly authentic, I should have baked Cuban bread, but I just didn’t have time.  If you’ve ever had true Cuban bread, you’ve probably noted that it has a slightly sour flavor profile.  This is achieved by creating a sponge and letting it cure before mixing your dough.  If I’d been willing to wait until Tuesday to eat this meal, I would have readily done this.  However, I’m kind of an instant-gratification girl, so I chose to bake a French baguette instead.  This recipe I will cover at a later date, but suffice it to say it’s super simple and I highly recommend it.
The sandwiches consist of bread, butter, pork, ham, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, and mustard.  They are pressed and grilled until the cheese melts and the bread is brown and crispy.
The final results were as good as anything I could have gotten in Florida, and probably a lot less expensive.  Not to mention that I have leftovers and can make this meal again if I want to.
Sandwich Cubano
One 6- to 8-inch loaf Cuban, French or Italian bread
Butter for the bread
Several thin slices roast pork
Several thin slices ham
Several slices Swiss cheese
Sliced dill pickles
Mustard
1 tablespoon butter if needed
1. Cut the bread in half the long way and butter it.  Layer with pork, ham, cheese and pickles.  Spread with mustard.  Top with the other half of the bread and squash the sandwich with your hand.
2. Use a sandwich press or put 1 tablespoon butter in a cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium heat.  When it melts, add the sandwich and weight it with a plate or something heavy – a filled teakettle, a big rock, some cans, whatever.  You really want to squash the sandwich.  Cook for about 3 minutes, or until lightly browned, then turn and brown the other side.  Lower the heat if necessary so the cheese melts before the bread becomes too browned.
3. Cut in half on the diagonal and serve.
Black Beans with Garlic and Cumin
1 pound dried black beans, rinsed and picked over
Several fresh epazote sprigs or 1 teaspoon dried, optional
2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1 tablespoon ground cumin, or to taste
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 cup minced onion
1. If time allows, soak the beans overnight or for several hours in water to cover, then drain. (If not, proceed, but expect cooking time to be somewhat longer.) Combine with water to cover in a pot over medium-high heat.  When the mixture boils add the epazote if you’re using it, crushed garlic, and cumin, partially cover, and adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily.  Cook, stirring infrequently, until the beans are tender and most of the water is evaporated, at least an hour and probably more; add water as necessary to keep the beans covered.
2. When the beans are tender, add salt, pepper, more cumin if you like, and the minced garlic.  Cook for another 5 minutes, then stir in the onion.  Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve.