Friday, August 29, 2014

Baked Italian Sandwiches

 Last Year's Post: Pinchos Morunos
Two Years Ago:   Seafood Cobb Salad

School has started, which means everyone's schedule has gone crazy again.  Football games, after-school activities and other commitments make it really difficult to sit down as a family to eat dinner.  I'm posting these hot sandwiches because they're a great make-ahead solution for a busy workday or a hungry teenager that comes home in the evening.  Everything is assembled in advance - all you have to do is throw however many sandwiches you want into the oven.  I think you could even put the foil-wrapped frozen sandwiches in a slow cooker and turn it on for a few hours while you're gone to a game, or heat the sandwiches before leaving home and throw them in an insulated bag to take to a chilly outdoor game to eat hot - they're really versatile. Although this combination is totally delicious (if I do say so myself), after you make them one time you'll start thinking up your own combinations, tailoring the meats, spice levels and other elements to your family's tastes.

The recipe as written makes 5 sandwiches, but I would strongly suggest doubling it (or making two varieties) to keep in your freezer.  They're very easy to assemble.  The only key is to get rolls that aren't overly squishy (such as hamburger buns) - you want the outer crust to be a little more sturdy so it holds its shape when you pull out the insides.  Hard rolls, ciabatta rolls, or other round-ish sturdy rolls are perfect.  If you could find round pretzel buns they'd be really good also.  Heating the sandwiches in the oven does several things:  it melts the cheeses into gooey goodness, it causes the pesto to permeate the bread and other ingredients with fragrance and flavor, it uniformly heats all the ingredients as opposed to just the outside, and it causes the exterior of the roll to because slightly crisp without becoming really crunchy.  Although I like paninis and grilled sandwiches as much as the next person, this treatment is slightly different and just as good.

Don't be afraid to pack the sandwiches tightly because they'll shrink down a little as the cheese melts. You just don't want them over-stuffed so the tops don't fit and they leak as they're heated.

While we were eating these last night The Lawyer told me how good they were. I remarked that I would definitely have one for dinner when he's gone next week.  His reply?  "Don't eat them all".  Enough said.

printable recipe
Baked Italian Sandwiches
Makes 5 sandwiches

3 ounces (about ½ cup) pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
1/3 cup chopped red onion
4-5 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
6 ounces shredded mozzarella
1 cloves garlic, minced
5 round sandwich rolls, ciabatta rolls, or hard rolls
3-4 ounces pesto
5 slices provolone cheese
5 ounces thinly sliced salami (about 30 slices)
½ shredded Parmesan

Combine the first five ingredients (olives through garlic) in a medium bowl and set aside.

Cut the top third off each roll and pull out most of the soft interior bread from both the tops and bottoms, being careful not to break through the crust.  Softly press the interior of the rolls and tops to create as much space as possible.

Brush the interior of the rolls and tops with a light layer of pesto, then layer ingredients in the following order:  one slice of provolone, 5-6 slices of salami, the shredded mozzarella mixture, and the Parmesan.  Gently press down on the top of the ingredients so the sandwiches will fit together tightly.  Replace the lid on each and press together.  Wrap each sandwich tightly in foil.

At this point, the sandwiches may be frozen for up to several months.

To bake, preheat the oven to 350d.  Do not remove the foil before baking.  If frozen, bake the sandwiches for 45 minutes.  If not frozen, bake the sandwiches for 25 minutes.  Unwrap and serve.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Balsamic Chicken Watermelon Salad

Last Year's Post: Ravioli with Peas, Bacon and Lemon Oil
Two Years Ago:  Char Siu Chicken with Chinese Long Beans

People who live in the Southwest (me being one) have gotten to the point right about now that northerners arrive at by late February - namely, enough already.  We're tired of this particular season, lets move along to the next one.  Now, I know that sounds somewhat sacrilegious if you live in the north and savor every day of the all-too-brief summer,  but we're pretty well done by this point.  If you live in a more northerly climate I hope you're sitting by a lake in a lawn chair with your face tipped toward the sun, enjoying every precious minute of the last days of summer.

Either way, this salad works (how's that for a segue?).  For those of you who are trying to be in denial about summer's end, a nice cool watermelon salad will make you feel like it's the middle of summer.  And for those of us who are still stuck in 105+ degree days, a cold and sweet no-cook salad sounds pretty darn appealing.

This salad is very simple - just spinach, watermelon, chicken, blue cheese, balsamic vinegar, and nuts. What makes it work is the variety of tastes and textures from the meaty chicken, creamy and pungent cheese, crunchy nuts, and of course sweet and juicy melon.  If you're in a mood to grill you could certainly grill up some boneless chicken breast or thighs instead of using purchased rotisserie chicken, and you could substitute any nuts you like for the pepitas.  All told it takes maybe 20 minutes to prepare if you boil down the balsamic vinegar in advance, or you could purchase a prepared balsamic glaze at the store to make it even easier - they're in with the vinegars.

 Buying cut-up watermelon is another easy time-saver and comes with additional bonus of being able to buy exactly how much you want.  I decided to use the cut glass creamer (of creamer and sugar fame) that I inherited from my grandmother for a little balsamic glaze pitcher.  It worked great.

After buying pre-washed baby spinach, rotisserie chicken, balsamic vinegar (or glaze), a good blue cheese, pre-cut watermelon and some nuts, really all you have to do is some simple assembly.  What could be easier?  It gives you more time for enjoying summer.

printable recipe
Balsamic Chicken Watermelon Salad
Serves 4

1 cup balsamic vinegar (or ½ cup purchased balsamic glaze)
1 teaspoon all-purpose seasoning
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 cups shredded rotisserie chicken (see note)
4 cups baby spinach
3 cups cubed watermelon
½ cup blue cheese, crumbled
1/3 cup toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds), or the toasted/chopped nuts of your choice
Coarse salt and pepper for finishing, optional

Pour the balsamic vinegar into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer 15-20 minutes until reduce by approximately half and starting to become syrupy.  Let cool.

Add the seasoning to the olive oil and stir, then toss with the shredded chicken. 

Layer the spinach with chicken, watermelon, blue cheese, and nuts.  Drizzle with the balsamic reduction to taste.  Sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper, optional.

 Note:  two small boneless skinless chicken breasts or four boneless chicken thighs may be substituted for rotisserie chicken.  Brush with the seasoned olive oil before grilling or pan sautéing until cooked through.  Set aside to cool, then shred or cut into slices.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Chicken Gyros

Last Year's Post: Grilled Shrimp and Corn Salad
Two Years Ago:  Gazpacho

It's late summer, which means the farmers markets (not to mention your garden) are bursting with fresh produce.  This recipe uses cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and lettuce, which makes it perfect for this time of the year.

Greek food is fresh, vibrant and usually pretty good for you.  Gyros (pronounced yeer-ohs) refers to a popular type of Greek meat that's thin-sliced off a giant spit and usually served as a sandwich with pita bread, yogurt sauce and cucumber.  Since most people don't have a giant spit handy, grilled chicken is typically substituted in recipes.  Chicken Gyros recipes often suffer from two major problems - dry, chewy, tasteless chicken, and leaky, cracking pita pockets. (Supermarket pita pockets are one of my all-time pet peeves to be filed under Never Buy Again Unless You Need to Punish Yourself.)  This recipe solves both problems and has the added bonus of using roast chicken from your local store (or your own leftover chicken), which makes it a very fast and easy meal to serve any night of the week.

The tzatziki sauce can be made at the same time you're making the rest of the meal, although it benefits from at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator to allow the flavors to blend.  It could also be made up to a day in advance.  The moist roast chicken is shredded and bathed in a light coating of garlic herb oil, which is also used to brush the bread before heating and lightly browning.  Finally, the cucumber salsa includes bright notes of tomato, red onion, Feta cheese, parsley and mint.  Iceberg lettuce adds the most crunch, although you could substitute sliced Romaine if you want.

I found the world's cutest cherry tomatoes at the farmer's market called "Tiny Tims" for obvious reasons.  Too cute for words.  You could also certainly use regular cherry tomatoes, or sliced or chopped regular tomatoes from your garden.  These were so tiny I left them whole.  And they were really sweet!

Back to the question of bread.  If you can find really fresh pocketless pita bread in your town, that's great.  Try the local Middle Eastern markets - they're an excellent source and a fun adventure.  Naan bread is an Indian/Asian flatbread very similar to pita bread (readily available in supermarket delis) that also works well.  Any other flatbread such as the "Flat Out" brand would work, and even flour tortillas would work in a pinch although they're less authentic.  The key is to make sure whatever flatbread you use is soft and foldable, although you could also serve the gyros open-faced with a knife and fork. I used naan bread and cut each one in half (they're big) for four individual sandwiches.

The recipe calls for dried oregano and rosemary, but you could certainly use fresh if you have some on hand. A good rule of thumb is to use approximately twice as much of a fresh chopped herb as called for dried.  I adapted this recipe from two others, and I'm genuinely pleased with the results.  In particular, the garlic herb oil, moist shredded chicken, and bright cucumber salsa make it the best chicken gyros recipe I've had.  I hope you like it too!

printable version
Chicken Gyros with Cucumber Salsa and Tzatziki
Serves 4

1 English cucumber, cut in half (or 2 Kirby cucumbers)
1 1/2 cups Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
5 garlic cloves, minced, divided
Salt and pepper
1 pint grape tomatoes, quartered
1 small red onion, halved and chopped
1/2 cup crumbled Feta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1-2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup chopped mint
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 rounded teaspoon dried oregano
1 rounded teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled
1 (8-ounce) package naan bread (2 breads) or 4 (8-inch) pocketless pita rounds
2 cups roast chicken, shredded
4 cups iceberg lettuce, thinly sliced
Lemon wedges, for serving

Peel and grate ½ cucumber, then squeeze it in a towel to remove excess water. Stir together with yogurt, lemon juice, and one third of garlic.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.  Refrigerate tzatziki for at least 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend (preferable but not necessary if you’re pressed for time).

Preheat broiler.

Cut remaining cucumber into 1/4-inch pieces and stir together with tomatoes, onion, Feta, 1 tablespoon olive oil, vinegar, parsley, and mint to make salsa.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Gently simmer ¼ cup oil, oregano, rosemary, remaining garlic, and salt and pepper in a small heavy saucepan until garlic is fragrant but not browned, 1 to 2 minutes (or microwave on low power for 30-60 seconds). Toss chicken with 3 tablespoons garlic oil and brush one side of bread with remainder.

Heat bread, oiled side up, in a 4-sided sheet pan, covered with foil, 3 to 4 inches from broiler 3 minutes. Uncover and broil, rotating bread for even coloring, until golden in spots, about 2 minutes.  Cut naan bread into half.

Spread some of tzatziki on warm bread and top with lettuce, chicken and salsa.  Fold in half.  Serve lemon wedges and remaining lettuce, salsa, and tzatziki on the side.

Note: Tzatziki can be made 1 day ahead and chilled.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Empanadas with Chicken, Corn and Zucchini

Last Year's Post: Tomato Crumble
Two Years Ago:  Summer Pasta Salad with Fresh Tuna

Empanadas are one of those foods found in many cultures and with many different names.  Basically they're baked or fried turnovers made with bread or pastry dough folded into crescent shapes that enclose a savory meat, cheese and/or vegetable filling. The name "empanada" is used in Spanish-speaking countries of Europe and South America as well as in the United States.  In South America they're very popular as street food, usually fried and eaten out of hand.

I wanted to post this recipe primarily because it's really, really good, but also because it's a baked version (good news), the dough turns out amazingly crisp and light (even better news), and you can freeze them for a really easy dinner during the week (best news).  If you make your own empanadas you can vary the fillings to your taste, and you can make them larger or smaller.  For example, this particular recipe makes ten medium empanadas, which will feed five people (two per person) for a meal with a salad or rice on the side.  One empanada would make a great lunch with some sour cream for dipping plus fruit and carrot sticks, which is what's nice about this particular size.  You could make larger empanadas if you want, or you could make smaller ones as appetizers for a party that would be great as a finger food dipped in salsa or sour cream.

Regarding the filling, I found a recipe for "Three Sisters" empanadas (the three sisters are corn, zucchini and black beans) and substituted some leftover grilled chicken for the black beans.

 If you want a vegetarian version, go with the beans.  I also used pepper jack cheese rather than cheddar, and substituted smoked paprika for chile powder.  All the variations are listed in the recipe below.  You can make the empanadas as mild or spicy as you want by varying the cheese and spices, and you could also add jalapenos for an extra kick.  The way I made them, they were mild but very flavorful which would be good if some of the people you're feeding don't like spice.  The spice-lovers could always use spicy salsa as a condiment to jazz them up.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that this is a somewhat fussy (read time-consuming) recipe.  First you make the dough - which by the way is fast and easy - and let it rest in the refrigerator for an hour.  While the dough rests, you roast the zucchini and corn and make the filling.

Then the fun begins - rolling out and filling 10 individual dough rounds (sorry no pictures of the process - I was covered in goo).  That's where it would be an advantage to make larger or smaller empanadas - there are simply fewer of the larger ones to roll out, and the smaller ones could be made by rolling out a big sheet of dough and using a cookie or biscuit cutter to cut small rounds.  I guess theoretically you could do that same thing with the 5-6" rounds for this recipe, but you would waste a fair amount of dough.  Whatever.  All I can tell you is that I would do it all over again in exactly the same way, which tells you how pleased I was with the results.  The empanadas are totally worth it, you just have to be in the right mood and know it's a two hour project.  (If you're not in the right mood, you could cheat and use refrigerated pie crusts, but the crispness of this dough makes it worth the effort.)

Three guesses as to which one I rolled out and filled first .  :-)  As I said, they freeze beautifully and can then be tossed in the oven frozen and allowed to bake until golden and hot for a really easy dinner.

Next week we're going to a new restaurant that specializes in Mexican seafood, and I noticed that they have empanadas on the menu with a filling of crab, chorizo, goat cheese and corn with a tomatillo verde sauce.  If they're as good as they sound, I'll try to re-create the recipe and post it.  I guess I couldn't have been too emotionally scarred from all that dough-rolling if I'm already contemplating the next batch.....

printable recipe
Empanadas with Chicken, Corn and Zucchini
Makes ten medium empanadas

For the dough:
2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut into ½“ cubes
1 large egg
1/3 cup ice water
1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar

For the filling:
½ pound zucchini (2 medium), cut into ½“ cubes
1 cup corn kernels (from 1 medium ear) or 1 cup frozen kernels, thawed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¾ cup shredded cooked chicken (or ¾ cup canned black beans, rinsed and drained)
¾ cup shredded Pepper Jack cheese (or cheddar cheese)
½ cup thinly sliced green onions
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
2 tablespoons canned diced green chiles, drained
1 teaspoon ground cumin
¼ teaspoon smoked paprika (or chile powder)
Sour cream for serving, optional
Salsa for serving, optional

For the egg wash:
1 large egg, beaten
1 tablespoon water

To make the dough, combine the flour and salt in a food processor and pulse briefly.  Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse meal with some small butter lumps, 6-8 times.  Beat together the egg, water and vinegar in a small bowl with a fork and add it to the flour mixture, pulsing a few times just until incorporated.  Turn the mixture out onto a lightly floured surface and gather together, then knead gently with the heel of your hand once or twice to bring the dough together.  Shape into a disk or rectangle and chill, wrapped in plastic wrap, for at least 1 hour.

To make the filling, first preheat the oven to 400d.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.  Dump the zucchini and corn on the parchment, then drizzle with the olive oil and a few grinds of salt and black pepper.  Toss everything together with clean hands and spread out into a single layer.  Roast for 20-25 minutes until the zucchini are softened and slightly browned around the edges.  Transfer to a bowl.

Add the chicken (or beans), cheese, green onions, cilantro, chiles, cumin, and paprika (or chile powder) to the bowl and toss.

In a small bowl, prepare the egg wash by mixing together the beaten egg and water.

To assemble the empanadas, divide the dough into 10 equal portions (about 52 grams each).  Shape each portion into a ball and roll into a 5-6” circle about 1/8” thick on a cool, lightly-floured surface.  Working one at a time, moisten the edge of half the circle with egg wash.  Place a ¼ cup (packed) filling in the center of the circle.  Fold the side with the egg wash over the top of the filling to create a half-moon shape and crimp the edges to seal.  Place the empanada on a parchment-lined baking sheet, brush the top with egg wash, and repeat with the remaining dough and filling.  Slice a few small slits in the center of each empanada to help release steam while baking.

Bake at 400d for 22 to 30 minutes or until lightly browned.  If desired, turn on the broiler for a few seconds at the end until the empanadas are browned to your liking.  Serve with sour cream and salsa, optional.

To Freeze Empanadas:

Prepare the empanadas and freeze on a baking sheet or plate, then transfer to a zip-top bag or aluminum foil.  To bake, preheat the oven to 400d and bake on a parchment-lined pan for 30-35 minutes until golden brown and hot all the way through.  Do not thaw before baking.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Goat Cheese and Chorizo Rolls

Last Year's Post: Healthy Homemade Spaghetti and Meatballs
Two Years Ago:  The Best Salsa Ever

Goat cheese and chorizo are one of those magical combinations where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, like tomatoes and basil - the spicy, meaty chorizo is perfectly offset by the creamy goat cheese.  Add in crisp phyllo dough and you have a great little pop-in-your-mouth appetizer.  I debated serving the rolls with a plum sauce or salsa verde on the side - you certainly could - but in the end decided to forego a sauce to let the chorizo and goat cheese flavors shine.  Having said that, I might serve some sort of chile sauce with them next time for the people who like a lot of spice, since the rolls aren't particularly spicy on their own.

True confessions - these rolls are a little fussy to make, as is anything made with phyllo.  But once you set aside  the 30 minutes or so required for assembly, it's a simple matter to bake them until beautifully brown. They can be baked several hours in advance because they're equally great served slightly warm or at room temperature.  Just don't refrigerate them after baking or the phyllo will soften and you'll lose the textural contrast between the creamy filling and the crisp shell.  (They can also be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen prior to baking.)

Phyllo is one of those things that people find very impressive and think a normal person can't work with, as in "you actually MADE those?", but nothing could be further from the truth.  You just have to know a few tricks.  Phyllo dough is very thin and dries out fast, so you need to keep the stack covered with a damp towel.  Treat the individual sheets gently when brushing them with butter and don't worry if a sheet cracks or tears because you'll be stacking and rolling multiple sheets together.  If one tears really badly just toss it because there are jillions in a box.  And above all, remember that a little butter fixes everything.

First you make a simple filling from cooked and cooled Mexican chorizo, goat cheese, and chives.  Mexican chorizo is different from Spanish chorizo primarily in texture - it's the soft version that looks kind of like bulk Italian sausage.  Spanish chorizo is a cured sausage that looks like a stick of pepperoni.  If you can't find Mexican chorizo you could substitute finely chopped Spanish chorizo in its place.  Since Mexican chorizo is raw, it needs to be cooked, cooled and chopped fairly fine before adding it to the goat cheese and minced chives for the filling.

After making the filling, it's time to butter and stack the phyllo sheets.  The original recipe called for 16"x12" sheets, but my phyllo was 8"x12".  It works out the same in the end but you can only get half the amount of rolls per stack with the smaller sheets so it was a little more work.  Basically you stack and butter three sheets of phyllo at a time, then cut the stack into 4" by 8" rectangles.  Place some filling on the short end, fold in the sides and roll up.  Each finished roll is placed on a baking sheets seam-side-down and brushed with butter before repeating with the next stack until you have 18 rolls.  It's a little messy but the butter makes your hands nice and soft.

You can tell I wasn't too concerned about having each stack cut precisely 4" wide - they came out slightly shorter or longer - but who cares?  It's artisan, as The Lawyer would say. They bake up beautifully brown and are an impressive, unique and delicious bar snack, appetizer, or small plate for a tapas party.

printable recipe
Goat Cheese and Chorizo Rolls
Makes 18 rolls

8 ounces soft plain goat cheese, left at room temperature for 1 hour
1 cup (8 ounces) Mexican chorizo, cooked and chopped into small pieces
1 ½ tablespoons minced chives
Salt and pepper
9 - 12"x16" phyllo sheets (or 18 - 12"x8" sheets)
1 stick of butter, melted

In a bowl, blend the goat cheese, chorizo, and chives; season with salt and pepper.  Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper.

Unroll the stack of phyllo sheets and cover with a lightly dampened kitchen towel.  Remove one phyllo sheet (covering the rest with the towel to keep moist) and place on a board.  Brush lightly with melted butter.  Top with two more phyllo sheets, buttering each lightly.  Cut the 12"x16" phyllo sheets into 6 (8"x4”) rectangles or the 12"x8" sheets into 3 (8"x4”) rectangles.  Place a tablespoon of filling at the short end of each rectangle and roll up, folding in the sides.  Set the rolls seam-side down on the baking sheet and brush with melted butter.  Repeat twice more (if using larger phyllo sheets) or five times more (if using smaller sheets) to make 18 rolls total.

Bake at 400d for 10-12 minutes, until golden brown.  Let cool for 5-10 minutes before serving, or serve at room temperature.  Once baked, keep the rolls at room temperature (do not refrigerate) and serve within a few hours to keep the phyllo crisp.

Note:  the rolls may be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen.  If frozen, thawing prior to baking will yield the best results.  A few minutes additional minutes of baking time may be needed.