Twice Baked Potatoes

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You can’t really go wrong with potatoes and cheese. And if you brown the cheese it’s even better.

Rich and I had a date night a few weeks ago and we were looking for something that was tasty, but not too indulgent. We are still coming off our holiday indulgences and are happy with lighter meals. We decided on spuds and salads, but we wanted to jazz up the potatoes just a bit. Twice baked potatoes to the rescue.

The potatoes are a nice change from regular baked potatoes and are only a little more work. You can cut the work down even further if you use leftover baked potatoes – it is easy to throw a few extra potatoes in the oven for later in the week.

Twice baked potatoes are the epitome of a customizable dish. Make them early in the day, or even the day before, and stash them in the fridge until ready to bake. Or make them right before you want to eat them. Use less cheese, or more. Add bacon, chives, green onions, garlic or bits of whatever you have in the fridge. I kept the recipe pretty basic, but feel free to make it yours.

What’s your favorite way to eat baked potatoes?

Print just the recipe here.

Twice Baked Potatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

Use more cheese if you like your potatoes really cheesy.

You can make bake, mash and fill the potato shells ahead of time. Store them in the fridge until ready to bake them the second time.

4 large baking potatoes, scrubbed
1 egg, slightly beaten
2-4 tablespoons milk
Salt
Pepper
1 cup grated cheese (Cheddar, Swiss or a combination of your favorites)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake potatoes for about an hour, or until they are soft when poked with a fork. Cool potatoes until you can handle them comfortably. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees.

Cut potatoes in half lengthwise. Scoop out the insides of each half, leaving about ¼ inch shell of potato inside the skin. You don’t have to be precise. Set potato shells aside.

Mash the scooped out potato with a fork or potato masher. Try to get most of the lumps out, but don’t get obsessive. Add the egg, about 2 tablespoons of milk and a few sprinkles of salt and pepper and mash again. If the mixture seems too dry, add a bit more milk and mash again. You want a mixture that is a little wetter than mashed potatoes.

Mix in about ½ cup of cheese. Reserve ½ cup of cheese for topping the potatoes later.

Fill the potato shells with the cheese-potato mixture, mounding the tops fairly neatly.

Place the filled potato halves on a lightly greased or parchment lined baking sheet, propping the potatoes against each other if they won’t stand up.

Bake the potatoes at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, or just until the tops are starting to turn golden brown in spots. Remove the potatoes from the oven and sprinkle the tops with the reserved cheese. Return to the oven for 10 more minutes, or until the cheese is melted and starting to brown. Broil the tops for a couple of minutes if you want the cheese browner.

Mini Meatloaves for Busy Nights

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Complicated recipes and experimental cooking haven’t been on my schedule lately. I spent last week baking for last Friday night’s craft fair (which went very well). This week I’ll be getting ready for Thanksgiving. And then we start the Christmas baking. Mix in a busy school year for Calvin, extra work for me and long workdays for Rich and we are running ragged lately. We are all looking forward to a few days off at the end of this week.

Dinners have been things we can eat in shifts, dishes that are easy to prepare ahead and pop in the oven or easy crockpot recipes. One of our favorite meals is meatloaf, and I have adapted it to make mini meatloaves that bake in just 20 minutes. In that time I can make mashed potatoes and heat up a few frozen vegetables. Or, I can put potatoes in the oven, make and bake the meatloaves and do the dishes in the time it takes the potatoes to bake.

I like to bake my meatloaf on a broiler pan, instead of a loaf pan. We like the sides a little crusty, which just doesn’t happen in a loaf pan. Any grease drains away, though I use lean ground sirloin, so there isn’t much.

I am including my recipe for meatloaf, though I know many people have strong feelings about the right way to do meatloaf. Feel free to use my mini meatloaf method with your favorite meatloaf recipe. Or adapt my meatloaf recipe to your tastes.

What do you make for dinner on busy nights?

Download or print the recipe here.

Mini Meatloaves
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

Adjust the Worcestershire sauce and spices to taste. I use a few shakes of each.

1 pound ground sirloin
3-4 tablespoons wheat germ or fine bread crumbs
¼ cup ketchup
1 egg
Worcestershire sauce
garlic powder
paprika
cayenne powder
salt
black pepper

Sauce:
½ cup ketchup
2-3 tablespoons brown sugar, or to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a broiler pan, casserole dish or baking sheet with sides.

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl until evenly mixed.

Divide mixture into quarters and form each quarter in a stubby football shape, packing the meat together with your hands.

Place meatloaves on prepared pan, leaving space between them. Mix the ketchup and brown sugar together for the sauce. Top each loaf with a dollop of sauce. Spread the sauce over the top and partway down the sides of each meatloaf. There will be sauce left over.

Bake about 20 minutes, or until cooked through and the outside edges are starting to brown.

Let rest about 5 minutes before serving with extra sauce.

Leftovers reheat well in the microwave.

 

A Day Made for Soup

I haven’t looked at the weather forecast in a few days, so rainy, cold dreariness was a shock. A shock, I tell you. I was expecting sun and 50s, like we had yesterday and the day before. Instead we have cold, cold rain and 40s. And the day started out so nicely sunny. That lasted about an hour.

DSC_0021All I want to do today is curl up with a blanket, a book and a cup of tea. Not exactly in my plans for the day, but it is that kind of afternoon. If I didn’t already have a plan for dinner, I would make roasted red pepper and tomato soup with some of my freezer stash of peppers.

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Or maybe lentil soup.

DSC_0023Or maybe turkey chili.

What do you do to warm up on a cold, rainy November day?

Easy Chicken Noodle Soup

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The other day I had a craving for chicken noodle soup. Craving might be too strong a word, but I really wanted some soup. In the past few years I have sworn off canned soup. Some of it is philosophic – have you seen the grocery store soup aisle? There are way too many kinds of soup: regular, lite, low sodium, low fat, low carb, bold flavor, extra chunky. It is kind of nuts that we, as a society, have a need for so many kinds of canned salty water with mushy noodles. What does that say about us? Not anything good, I can tell you.

My soup angst aside, I just haven’t enjoyed canned soup in the last few years. Maybe it is my changing tastes, but they all taste too salty, too much of the can and just not right.

I have tried making my own chicken noodle soup many times, but I just wasn’t happy with it. Sure, I have favorite recipes for vegetable soup, chili and bacon turkey chowder, but I didn’t have a chicken noodle soup I was happy with. Until now.

The secret, at least to us, was finding a commercial broth that we liked. I have made my own chicken stock, and it was sublime. But I don’t have the time or the inclination to make my own broth very often. Nor do I have the freezer space to store a ready supply.

I don’t usually tout specific brands on the blog, but I do have to call out Kitchen Basics. I have only tried their unsalted chicken stock, but it was the most flavorful, most chicken-y broth I have found. No weird ingredients either. And it has no added salt, so I can salt my dishes to my own tastes. Gold stars all around. And this is a totally unbiased opinion – I received no compensation from Kitchen Basics for this post. I just like their product.

Once I found a good broth, it was just a matter of including the vegetables I like the best in chicken soup. I started with shallots – every soup needs either shallots or onions. Next, I added a lot of celery because I love celery in soup, and because I love the aroma of sautéing celery. I added carrots, of course. They belong in chicken soup. I finished with a little garlic to round things out.

The noodles are kind of a no-brainer. Pick the shape you like the best. We have discovered (we have eaten a lot of chicken soup lately) that we prefer small noodles that are less likely to flop off our spoons or send hot soup dribbles down our chins.

Now to the chicken. I like to make extra chicken any time we are having roast chicken for dinner. Then I dice it up and freeze it in one or two cup portions. It is perfect to pull out and add to chicken soup, stir fries, fried rice, pasta or pizza. If that doesn’t float your boat, you can buy a rotisserie chicken, or have chicken one night and chicken soup the next, with the leftover chicken.

Our soup was everything I wanted in a soup – flavorful broth that tasted of chicken and vegetables instead of salt, exactly the vegetables we wanted, perfectly shaped noodles and real white meat chicken.

Throw the cans to the curb (in the recycling bin, of course) and whip up your own chicken noodle soup. You won’t be sorry.

Download or print the recipe here.

Easy Chicken Noodle Soup
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

Your broth determines if your soup is just good or excellent. Make sure you use a tasty broth, either homemade or commercial. I like Kitchen Basics unsalted chicken stock. I like a lot of vegetables – if you like more broth, use the smaller amount of celery and carrot.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large shallot or 1 small onion, minced
3-4 ribs celery, diced
3-4 carrots, diced
1 large clove garlic, minced
4 cups low salt or unsalted chicken broth (see headnote)
¾ teaspoon salt, or to taste
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup small noodles, I used radiatori
1-2 cups cooked chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces

Heat the olive oil in a 3-quart pot over medium heat until shimmering.

Add shallot or onion, celery and carrots. Sauté until slightly browned and tender, lower heat if they are browning too much.

Add garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes.

Add chicken broth. Cover pot and bring it to a boil over high heat.

Once broth boils, lower the heat so the soup is boiling gently and cook for about 10 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.

Taste broth and add salt and pepper to taste.

Add noodles and boil, covered, until they are al dente.

Lower heat to low and add chicken. Heat just until chicken is hot. Serve hot.

Leftovers keep well, though you may need to add a little water – the soup thickens and the noodles tend to absorb the broth.

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes

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Fall weather changes my thinking when I plan dinner, even side dishes. I turn from things like light, citrusy rice to rich, cheesy potatoes. Or at least I did today. I wanted to make a cheesy potato dish to go with the breaded, baked fish I was planning. And I wanted to make it as simple as possible, with as few dirty dishes as possible.

I decided to make scalloped potatoes like my mother used to when I was growing up. I sliced potatoes and layered them with cheese and sprinkles of flour. I poured milk over the top and baked them until they were browned and bubbly and the milk and flour had thickened into a sauce.

The only hard part about this recipe is waiting for them to bake. No cheese sauce to make, no potatoes to parboil before baking. Just cheesy, warm potatoes with a minimum of fuss and bother. My idea of a perfect side dish.

Download or print recipe here.

Cheesy Scalloped Potatoes
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 6-8

You can make this with your favorite cheeses. Stronger cheeses are better than mild ones, in my opinion. Use any milk you have on hand – the richer the milk, the richer your sauce.

4-6 potatoes (1½ pounds)
1½ cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
¼ cup flour, divided
½ teaspoon salt, divided
black pepper, to taste
2 cups milk (I used 2%)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Heavily grease a 9 by 13 inch casserole dish.

Peel the potatoes and slice them into thin, round slices. Mix the cheeses together in a bowl.

Cover the bottom of the casserole with a thin layer of potato slices – use about a quarter of the potatoes. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of flour, ⅛ teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste. Repeat with another layer of potatoes, flour, salt and pepper.

Spread 1 cup of cheese over the second layer of potatoes. Repeat the layering twice more with the remaining potatoes, flour, salt and pepper.

Pour milk gently over the entire casserole. Cover casserole tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 60 minutes.

Remove foil and sprinkle top of potatoes with remaining 1 cup of cheese. Return to the oven, uncovered, for another 20-30 minutes, until top is golden brown, edges are browned and sauce is bubbly and thick. Let potatoes rest for 10-15 minutes before serving. Leftovers reheat well.

Caramelized Acorn Squash

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I alluded to this recipe a couple of weeks ago, when I was talking about the date night meal Rich and I enjoyed on a Friday night. We had Cornish hens, a whole grain medley and this squash. I’m not sure which was our favorite, but together they made a wonderful fall meal.

I had two beautiful acorn squash that my dad grew in his garden and I wanted to do them justice. I also wanted to do something different than my usual method – roasting the squash halves and serving them with butter and brown sugar. I envisioned slices of squash browned in butter, but I wanted to do it with the least amount of work and without flirting with stitches.

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As you may know, winter squash can be nigh on impossible to peel when they are raw. You can do it, but you risk losing a digit or two in the process. If you are particularly unlucky, you will get one with a thick rind that leaves you wondering if your knife will ever make it through the darn thing so you can get the seeds out.

I figured I would need to cook the squash a little before I tried peel it. I was able to cut mine into wedges while they were raw, since they were small and had relatively thin rinds. After a short time in the oven, the wedges were easy to peel and only needed a few minutes in a skillet to get toasty brown. The flesh was tender and sweet, contrasting with the buttery, slightly salty caramelized sides of the slices. Just exactly how I had imagined they would be.

Download or print the recipe here.

Caramelized Acorn Squash
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

You can bake the squash wedges ahead of time. Store in the fridge for a day or two, until you are ready to caramelize and serve them.

2 small to medium acorn squash
¼ cup water
½-1 tablespoon butter
salt, optional
pepper, optional
brown sugar or maple syrup, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut squash in half and remove the seeds and strings. Cut squash into wedges, about 1½ inches wide at the widest portion.*

Arrange squash wedges in a single layer in a casserole dish. Add water and cover with the lid or foil. Bake for 15 minutes, or until they are crisp tender. A fork will go in the flesh, but not easily.

Remove squash wedges from oven and let cool until you can handle them. Peel squash. At this point you can refrigerate the squash wedges for up to a couple of days.

Heat butter in a large skillet over medium heat.

Add squash wedges, laying them on their sides in a single layer. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, if desired. Let cook, undisturbed, for 5-10 minutes, or until golden brown on the bottoms. Carefully turn over and brown the other side for 5-7 minutes more.

Serve hot. Sprinkle with brown sugar or drizzle with maple syrup, if desired.

*If your squash has a particularly hard-to-cut rind, you can cut it into wedges after it bakes.  You will probably need to bake the halves longer than the wedges to get them crisp tender.

Cornish Game Hens with Roasted Apples and Shallots

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What is it about tiny food that makes it special? Roast chicken is always a good meal, but when you use tiny game hens it takes things to a whole new level. Or maybe it’s just me, but I’m going with it.

Rich and I had a date night last Friday and we planned a special dinner at home – Cornish game hens roasted with apples and shallots, a red rice and kamut medley and caramelized acorn squash.

I decided to butterfly the hens, so they would cook faster. I looked up how to do it and it sounded perfectly easy and straightforward. And it should have been.

I thought I knew which side was the chicken’s back. I was cutting along what I thought was the backbone, thinking the whole time, “This chicken sure has a lot of meat on its back. And it’s white like breast meat.” Oops.

I actually had to stand the little chickens up on their legs and visualize them walking around to figure out which side would be the back. I guess you could say I needed a little perspective. That sounds better than saying I am just clueless.

Perspective or no, our game hens turned out beautifully – tender, juicy meat topped with crispy skin. The apples and shallots lent their flavors to the meat and soaked up the juices at the same time. The picture doesn’t do it justice. We were in a hurry to eat, and didn’t take the time to do it right. Then we ate the subject.

Note: I figured on a hen for each of us, but we aren’t big meat eaters and ended up splitting one and saving the other. Plan accordingly – depending on your meat-eating habits.

Download or print the recipe here.

Cornish Games Hens with Roasted Apples and Shallots
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 2-4, easy to double

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 apples
1 large shallot or small onion
2 Cornish game hens
¼ cup white wine or water
salt
pepper
paprika

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Drizzle a large baking dish with olive oil.

Core the apples, cut each into 8-12 wedges and scatter around the baking dish. Slice the shallot or onion into thin slices and scatter among the apples.

Remove the giblets from the cavity of the hens and discard or save for another use.

Working with one hen at a time, use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to cut along both sides of the backbone to remove it. Open the hen like a book, and place it skin side up on top of the apples and shallots. Repeat with the other hen.

Pour the white wine or water over the hens. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and paprika.

Roast the hens, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, or until the skin is browned and crispy and the legs move easily at the joints. If you pierce the flesh with a knife, the juices should run clear.

Let hens rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.