Thursday, October 29, 2009

Three Cheese Chicken Penne Pasta Bake

Try saying that title three times fast without spitting on someone!

First off, this recipe is good! It's so good I'm having it for breakfast today. Say what you will about what breakfast foods are supposed to be, but it's good food and I'm hungry so there you go.

I only changed a couple of things with this recipe. My spinach bag was slightly smaller than called for (trust me, you'll get plenty of spinach anyway), I used a (drained) can of diced tomatoes that had italian flavouring, I used italian seasoning instead of the basil because the only basil I own is in a tube instead of dried, I chose a mushroom and garlic pasta sauce, and neither my cream cheese nor my parmesan cheese were of the "light" variety. Oh, the horror!

The pasta/spinach combination is a little tricky to drain well, but you'll get a nice spinach facial if you stick your head over the colander. The water is a fun green too. Mine probably still had some water in it which might account for the slightly runny sauce at the end.

Don't forget to preheat the oven. I was distracted by phone calls so I had some waiting to do when I finally remembered to turn the oven on. We all know how much I enjoy waiting. The last couple of pasta recipes I've made, I didn't cook the pasta right away because then it sits around congealing and getting cold. This time, cook the pasta first like they tell you to because the sauce won't take very long.

My baking dish ended up very full so don't be alarmed if that happens to you as well. Beware that the dish will still be bubbling away if, at the end of the oven time, you turn the oven off and try to go for a run. Better take it out and cover it with aluminum foil instead. You don't want to come back to a dessicated carcass that used to smell and look really good. The aluminum foil idea (if you're not eating right away) is a good one, but it may allow some extra moisture to accumulate in your dish. Not earth-shattering, just something to keep in mind.

And by the way, running in fall leaves is a lot of fun. It sounds and smells good, just like this recipe :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cranberry-Lemon Shortbread

Wow. This recipe was a PITA. Maybe I'm just tired from having been in the kitchen most of the day, but I'm not really excited about these cookies. They sure seem innocuous enough online, but I ran into numerous little problems while making them.

The ingredients are straight forward and easy. Nothing really exotic beyond the dried cranberries. I managed to prepare those while waiting for my White Bean & Pasta soup to simmer. I didn't really know what lemon zest was, but correctly guessed that it's the peel of a lemon, all grated up. Now's there's a partially naked lemon in my fridge. Any takers?

Once I mixed the dry and wet ingredients, the problems started. The dough is really sticky and I'm assuming that's why they recommend chilling it for 30 minutes prior to trying to roll it. First I had to wrestle it onto the plastic wrap. Then I had to remove it from my hands and the spatula I was using, and make it stick to the "ball" of dough. Not an easy feat. I finally shoved it in the fridge, only to suddenly realize I don't own a rolling pin. Quick call to two different friends finally yields me a new rolling pin to call my own. Sweet!

With the chilled dough in hand, and my new rolling pin unwrapped, I dusted the counter and rolling pin with flour and tried to flatten my dough. Easier said than done. This stuff is tenacious! I was rolling it too hard at first, but even when I lightened up, it still sticks like crazy to whatever isn't coated in flour. Roll, roll, flour up, peel dough off roller and try to adhere to rest of dough, roll, roll, flour up...

Finally, I was ready to start cutting out cool shapes. The only cookie cutters I had on hand were dinosaurs. Laugh all you want but they're fun. The only negative is that some of them have little bitty narrow parts that the dough likes to stick in. This would help explain the War Amps appearance of my poor Jurassic Park cookies.

I had to use a knife to scrape/cut around the cookie cutters, removing the excess dough. Then I had to scrape the cut shape off the counter and attempt to transfer it to the cookie sheet without arms, legs, or heads dropping off. I wasn't very good at the process which also helps to explain my mangled dinos.

Repeat, repeat, third sheet of pseudo-dinos is ready, I'll make a heart with the extra dough. That's the only shape of cookie that's recognizable for what it is. The other hard part about using the cookie cutters is that this recipe has dried fruit in it. Those cutters are probably better suited for a recipe such as sugar cookies, where the dough isn't quite so finicky and annoying.

The cookies are cooling, I've eaten dinner, time for the icing. I don't recommend making the icing up as they tell you to do. You'll end up with a peculiar ratio of a lot of juice to some lumps of icing sugar. Very, very runny, and not resembling icing in the slightest. After much addition of icing sugar and cream cheese, along with dragging out the electric beaters again, I managed to fix my icing to the point where it was useable, albeit still quite runny. It's not the pale pink they promise either.

This was a test run of this recipe for me. I'm going to use it again before the end of the year, when it will count, so now I have a better idea of what problems to anticipate, and possibly how to fix them. Until then, I'm chowing down on tasty, demented-looking, extinct creatures...

White Bean and Pasta Soup

20 recipes! Who would have thought I'd stick it out this long? I can honestly say it's been a "process", but I'm eating better (most days) and I've learned a lot. I'm a faster chopper of veggies now, and I even graduated to using a bigger - albeit scarier - knife yesterday. I still cry when I hack onions though.

I must say, as a warning, that if you do this whole recipe as I did (as in using the second one listed to prepare the beans), it will take you a while and will be fairly labour-intensive. I ended up doing the bean prep recipe last night and I finished the soup recipe this morning. It's confusing, I know. I did think about simply using canned beans for the soup recipe to make my life easier, but I'm trying to learn new things so I decided to do it from scratch the first time.

The bean prep recipe (Cannellini Beans with Sage) wasn't too bad overall, just time consuming. I made another batch of the Rib Stickin' Bean & Barley Soup (see Sept 1st blog entry), so by the time I got to this one, it was already 7pm. The package of beans I bought was heavier than I needed so I had to guesstimate how much a pound was. I haven't yet got a kitchen scale. I didn't have sage either so I used 3 bay leaves. Instead of kosher salt, I used half the amount required in sea salt. Apparently that's the way to go if you're substituting for kosher salt, just cut the amount called for in half. I love the internets.

I cheated a little bit on the bean soaking time. The recipe says overnight, but the package of beans says 3 hours so I used warmer water and went with the shorter time. The peppercorns are a bit of a PITA to remove later. I dug them out as they appeared in my slotted spoon at the end of the recipe, but I still found a few this morning. Not critical, just something to keep in mind. The garlic also fell apart somewhat so I had to retrieve a bit of floating garlic parts. For the record, the bean recipe will make far more than you need for the soup. I think I'll add all the extra cooked white beans to the Bean & Barley Soup I made earlier. It's either that or to the cookies I'm making next...

As for the White Bean & Pasta Soup I just made, I cut back a little on the freakin' onion, chopping up a large one instead of a whole 2 cups worth. Has onion got some super health benefit that I'm unaware of? Every bloody recipe seems to call for the crazy things! I also substituted 3 cups of the beef broth that was clogging up my fridge for the water, adding more water to make up the difference. That was the initial 3 1/2 cups of liquid called for, and by the end of the recipe, I'd added another 2 cups of water. Not that it makes a major difference, but I seeded and finely chopped 2 roma tomatoes instead of the large tomato. As for the green onion and drizzling of olive oil, I skipped those entirely.

During the 25 minutes or so of simmering time, I managed to wash the dishes I'd created, and chop up the cranberries needed for my cookies later today. I'm learning to use cooking time wisely!

The soup is quite good. Mine needed that last cup of water added at the end because it's quite thick, but it's tasty and hot and full of delicious goodness. Mmmm! I'd say the only overall drawback would be cooking with the never-ending headache that has plagued me off and on for a week now...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Broccoli and Tortellini Light Alfredo

Recipe #19: Sorry, no link for this recipe. I found it on the back of a package of Green Giant frozen broccoli so you should be able to find it easily too. Alternatively, email me ( and I'll send it to you.

Luckily for me, I only needed to buy one ingredient for this one: the sour cream. I figured I didn't have nutmeg at home, and was willing to substitute a random spice picked at the last minute, but was pleasantly surprised to discover I do own nutmeg. I can't remember when I bought it but it's not too old.

This recipe also mentions white pepper and hot pepper. White pepper? What the heck is white pepper? I know now, because I asked a friend, but do people seriously buy pepper according to colour? As for the hot pepper, no. I don't do those. Verboten. I had an intensely painful experience with some Flamin' Hot Cheetos recently - thankfully they're not currently available in Canada - and I don't gravitate to spicy food in general. Too much pain and running nose.

I'm glad I read this recipe more than once before I started making it. I was assembling the ingredients and hauled out an onion which I was prepared to try grating in lieu of slicing this time. Something made me look once more at the quantities and I noticed it said 1 tbsp of "finely chopped onion". 1 TBSP??! You want me to go to the trouble of hacking up 1 tbsp of onion? No. Not going to happen. Because then I will have leftover onion stinking up my fridge. If I'm going to destruct an onion for cooking purposes, it's all or nothing. This time, I chose nothing. I added extra garlic to compensate because garlic's good for my immune system.

I was afraid I'd wrecked the sauce when I panicked at the hissing milk slowly being poured into the pot and quickly dumped the rest of it in. Once I whisked in the flour gradually, and waited a while for it to come to a boil, the sauce managed to save itself by thickening somewhat. Whew! I was wracking my brain trying to remember how I made sauce before but was coming up blank. Patience appears to have paid off in this case.

Overall this recipe is pretty easy to make. It doesn't call for a lot of exotic ingredients, save for the container of fat-free sour cream sitting in the fridge with no calling now. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the missing noxious onion and hot pepper, my version turned out kind of bland. My upbringing in the House of Bland coming back to haunt me perhaps? I did think about hurling some mustard powder into the sauce, but never actually got around to doing it. I discussed the situation of bland sauce with a culinary friend who suggested maybe some lemon juice in the boiling water to infuse the pasta and broccoli with flavour, or a bit of that Lea & Perrins "rooster" sauce added to my sauce. Now I have some ideas for next time, and some semi-bland food for lunch tomorrow...

Monday, October 19, 2009

Crock Pot Potato Soup

Since I'm pressed for time these days necessitating a temporary departure from blogging, I figured I'd make a crock pot recipe, thus freeing me up to do other things while my dinner essentially cooked itself. I didn't anticipate the hour of prep this one would take...

My index finger is sporting a large blister (covered by Polysporin under a Scooby Doo band-aid, naturally) from chopping, chopping, and more stupid chopping. I hate leeks and onions! Ok, admittedly, part of the problem is probably the fact that I chop, slice, and dice EVERYTHING with my little yellow paring knife. But that's because it's the only good knife on the premises that I'm not afraid of using.

This was my first time using leeks in anything. I usually avoid eating them too. They look weird at the grocery store, and seem to be related to onions. Why would I want them? But, with this cooking experiment voyage I have embarked on, I figured I'd better try some new things or what's the point of it all? Yes, I could become an expert at making Kraft Dinner, but it really wouldn't get me too far in life, and I hate being one dimensional.

Since leeks are foreign to me, I hacked out a quick email to the Maman to pick her culinary brain on which parts I use, and how best to use them. She doesn't cook with them much either but gave me some suggestions which I coupled with the tag that came on the leeks. Recipe calls for 2 leeks so naturally the grocery store sells the blasted things in a bunch of 3. You don't know how tempted I was, there in the produce section, to yank one leek out and just buy two. I didn't do it because I was on lunch and didn't have time to explain to the police why I'd done that if anyone had noticed. Now I have a lone leek in the fridge. Free to a good home other than mine....

Leeks, like my nemesis onions, are slippery and difficult to chop. I was getting better at chopping onions through tears, and wisely saved them for last this time, but the leeks got to me long before I got to the onions. Tedious, tedious, chop, chop, leek ala floor, chop, chop, chop, now I have a blister. Woe is me. I chopped the first leek up into really small pieces because I don't want a big mouthful of yuck, and I don't want to taste the yuck either. That's become my way of working with recipes that request onions: I chop them into microscopic pieces so to better pretend they're not there. By the time I got to the second leek, I just hacked it into somewhat bigger pieces and hoped for the best.

Another suggestion for this recipe before it turns into an anti-leek-and-onion-rant: Unless you're using sodium-reduced everything, this one might not be so good to partake in if you're on a sodium-restricted diet. To my palate, so far it's pretty salty, but it is still cooking while I type this. Once I finally found the bloody bouillon cubes, I had a few different choices for chicken flavour so you might want the less salt ones that I didn't end up choosing. And if you're shopping at the Metro on Wellington Road in London, the cubes are not in the soup aisle - the organic ones are but they don't come in chicken flavour - they're in the spice section, two aisles over. Annoying, I know.

Oh, and I'll give you another little tidbit of information: get a BIG crockpot if you don't reduce the ingredients. If you follow the link at the top of this blog, you'll notice that the recipe is helpfully lacking some key information such as how many servings it makes (more than my crockpot can hold I discovered the hard way), any nutritional information (is it that bad?), and how long to expect the prep to take (if you're me, better allow at least an hour, including the cursing). Jenny warned me this recipe might make large quantities but I didn't listen.

I haven't yet reached the point where I can look at a recipe, see that it calls for 6 potatoes, and know that it will cause a near overflow of my crockpot. My brain sees this instead: "Oh, 6 potatoes. Ok, this is a good recipe. I have 12 potatoes that I'm trying to use up and this will take care of half of them. Leeks? Gross. I guess I'll try them. I wonder if I have the celery soup at home already? I think I ran out of carrots last week. Hey, basil in a squeeze tube, cool!"....and so it goes.

Well, since this freakin' recipe took forever (4 hours on high, milk in for the last hour), I've already had a salad for dinner and I'm close to going to bed but I'll try it. Salty, yessir, but that's probably more a result of my palate not being used to salty foods. I don't normally add salt to stuff. The vegetables are nice and tender (hot too, I just burned my mouth), and the microscopic onion and leek are hardly noticeable. Just the way they should be.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Parmesan, Chicken & Broccoli Pasta

Finally, a recipe that doesn't feed 12 people! My freezer is pretty full from all of the recent leftovers.

You may be wondering about all the chicken recipes I've made lately. Number one, it was on sale... in bulk. Number two, beef is a PITA to me as I've mentioned before. Number three, chicken turns white when it's done. Easier to tell.

I have a stomachache while I write this, but I swear it's from stress, not my dinner. Don't let that turn you off trying this recipe yourself. It's pretty tasty. Just don't let it get cold while you eat like I did.

Based on an idea I gleaned from comments on the Kraft site, I added a bit of extra salad dressing to this version. Pretty much everything else is the same, save for the freshly grated parmesan in place of canned stuff. I had some fresh stuff left over. I pitched the bit of cammo broccoli in the fridge in favour of fresh. I ate the softly wrinkled tomato in a salad the other night and used a fresher one for this. I had a 454g pasta package so I pinched out what I figured to be about 1/4 of that, then flung in a few more noodles (twice) when it didn't look like enough.

Heck, I even grated the mozzarella into my 1/4 cup measuring spoon, although a lot of it ended up on the counter. I wasn't sure if it was supposed to be a "packed" measured amount like brown sugar, or more loose, as it came out of the grater. I compromised and mashed one 1/4 cup and not the other.

You might find this recipe to be a bit runny at the end. Mine was probably from adding the extra dressing, but the tomatoes will also contribute some liquid. I think next time I'll probably add some (dry) Italian seasoning to give it a bit of a flavour boost. You could probably also try a wee bit of that Lee & Perrins "rooster" sauce, the dark bottle with the orange label.

This will be my last recipe post for a little while. I'm heading to the White House for our Thanksgiving (I hope I don't need a dinner reservation), then I need to go off the grid for a bit to catch up on some neglected parts of my life. Fear not, I will return. In the meantime, try some of my blogged recipes and tell me how they went for you. I changed the comment settings for this blog so you *should* be able to post a comment without having to have a special email account. Let me know if this is not the case.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Creamy Chicken & Rice Bake

How ironic that I'm writing this as the smoke detector for the troll's lair downstairs has been going off for about a minute. That's usually what happens to me when I cook. I can hear her dragging a chair around, probably because of her lack of stature. I just hope she doesn't take the battery out and forget to put it back in.

Well, another recipe done that looks mostly like the photo on the website I got it from (link above). I only ran into a couple of "issues" with this one.

I bought the few ingredients I needed on my way home, and started thawing the chicken as soon as I was home. Oh ho! I'm learning to think ahead in the cooking department. Unfortunately, when I hauled out all the ingredients, I realized that I had just about every other kind of soup except cream of chicken. I ended up using low fat cream of celery, mostly because I had two cans for some unknown reason, and really had no idea when or in what I would ever end up using them.

I didn't really have any onion powder, nor was I about to buy yet another spice I'll use twice and leave sitting on the shelf for 6 years. I dug some onion soup mix powder out of the cupboard and used the required amount from that, managing to mostly avoid the little dried bits of whatever that come with the powder. I hate onion soup.

The rice? Well, yes, the rice was a bit of a problem. Not one I had seen coming either. In my planning brilliance, I failed to realize that just because I had a box of rice sitting in the cupboard, that did not automatically translate to having enough actual rice inside the box. I came up just shy of the 3/4 cup required, and knew enough that making up the difference with the instant rice on the shelf would not necessarily bring the desired result. Not yet at least. What I also didn't think of at the time was to simply adjust my added water to account for the missing rice. As they say, hindsight is 20/20 for a reason.

When my dish came out of the oven still quite soupy, I figured out the lack of rice and non-adjustment of water was almost certainly to blame. That would save me blaming myself for jerry-thawing the frozen vegetables under hot water at the last minute, thereby potentially inadvertedly adding undesired extra water to the recipe. Nope, wasn't that. I have now fixed the soupy problem by making some extra instant rice on the stove and stirring it into the pan. You can hardly even tell it didn't come out like that, or so I keep telling myself.

I don't really know yet how the whole thing tastes because I got tired of waiting for it to cook and had a burger for dinner instead. The chicken/rice combo is for lunch tomorrow.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chocolate, Cranberry & Oat Bars

A funny thing happened the other day when I did a Healthier Living Dessert search on the Kraft Kitchens site: It gave me a list of 63 dessert recipes, one of which was Deep Dish Chicken Pot Pie. I know I haven't been cooking stuff very long, but where I come from, chicken pot pie is not considered a dessert! I laughed. A lot.

Our family closes up our cottage on Thanksgiving, but we did it a week early this year due to scheduling conflicts on the real weekend. As part of our closing up weekend, we have a nice potluck dinner, usually with a bunch of our neighbours up there, and it's a relaxing evening of good food and great socializing, often while taking warm refuge from the inclement weather that can accommodate the holiday. This year, we kept it pretty low-key with just our family, about 15 of us altogether. We all pitched in for food and I made this recipe for dessert.

I periodically wish my kitchen had more counter space. Better still, I wish the dishes would clean themselves, but I think the counter wish will come true before the dish wish. The dishes usually get in the way of the counter, especially in recipes like this one where there's a greased pan lying around, plus a bowl with the dry ingredients, plus the bowl where you're blending the butter and sugar, plus the bowl that you were blending the butter in until you realized it wasn't going to work, etc. You get the picture. Jenny gave me a suggestion to deal with the dishes, but I've yet to take her up on it out of laziness to date.

I was a little pressed for time with this recipe so I recruited the Chocolatarian to help me speed up the process. He's an experienced baker and loves chocolate so I delegated the "coarsly chopped" chocolate task to him. Next time, I'll hack the pecans to pieces before I start the recipe, but thankfully I was able to squeeze that tedious task in while he blended the sugar and butter for me. I was apprehensive about using cranberries since I'm not a big cranberry fan, but they're not overpowering and they lend a bit of tartness to offset any excess sweetness in this recipe. I noticed that one can also use raisins instead of cranberries if that's an issue for you.

These bars that I cut into squares were quite well received. No one seemed to even care that they were a "healthier" dessert option which means to me that they didn't taste too "diet-esque" or anything equally revolting. In fact, both Jeff and Jenny were eager to take some extra squares home with them which I heartily encouraged since otherwise I'll be stuck with them for weeks. The squares I mean, not my cousins. We had an extensive dessert collection this year for our holiday meal, and my little bars got snatched up as quickly as all the chocolatey-goodness options which made me feel good. I even got asked for the recipe, hooray!

Creamy Chicken, Bacon & Tomato Pasta

We're back to Kraft again. What can I say? Their "healthier" recipes are easiest for me to find, and I like all the bright colours on their website. I'm partial to bright colours.

This recipe turned out pretty well, if you ignore the fact that it took me a long time to get the darn sauce to thicken. I'm not really sure why that was a problem, seeing as I did everything just the way I was supposed to. Was it the spontaneous mushrooms perhaps?

The only things I altered with this recipe were the addition of some dried oregano, some dried italian blend seasoning, some freshly grated parmesan, and a drained can of mushrooms because I like them. Don't ask me how much spices I added. I said "some" for a reason because it was a "shake-shake-shake, looks like enough" moment times two. I figured that since I have these spices hanging out in my kitchen already, and since I was supposed to buy the italian blend tomatoes, then those spices should go nicely with the recipe.

Not that it made much difference, but you might want to read the tomato can label carefully. I was so focused on buying the italian blend in the right size that I failed to notice that I wasn't buying the "diced" tomatoes. I didn't know this until I slopped them in the pot but it wasn't too bad. I just whacked at them with the edge of a spatula until they looked more diced. There. Problem fixed.

By the time I got around to eating this dinner, I was nearly asleep with fatigue (a lot on the go right now) so I was only able to eat half of what I put in my bowl. My GI tract has also been rather unhappy with me lately so my opinion of this dish tasting a bit too salty for my palate may not be an accurate impression. The other person that I managed to convince to try this liked it a lot so there you go. At least the mushrooms gave me something to snack on while I waited for the stupid sauce to thicken. If you add the mushrooms like me, you may want to see how watery your sauce is and adjust the water addition accordingly, something I will do next time...