Vacation, Snow Storms and Elusive Chicken

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Vacation is over, or at least almost over. Calvin was supposed to go back to school on Monday, after two weeks off, but he had a snow day. And he has today off again. Twelve plus inches of snow and subzero temps kind of throw a wrench in things around here. We had blizzard conditions on Sunday and brutally cold temperatures Monday. Today we are supposed to hit the upper 20s, which sounds marvelous. I like winter, but in moderation, and there is nothing moderate about this weather.

The past two weeks have been pretty much a bacchanalia of good food and fun. Christmas week was full of cookies, turkey and gravy, eggnog (homemade, thank you) and all manner of other goodies. Our week in Florida was much the same, with a little beach time and a not-so-successful trip to the u-pick citrus farm thrown in. Partner crabby proprietors and less than stellar fruit and you get customers that won’t go back. But we laughed it off and went home to make a lemon tart with store lemons.

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All the fun led to a burning desire to eat better. We are just a little overindulged, to say the least. All we are craving are healthy dishes and hot beverages (it is -3 F as I type this. Can I have another cup of tea, please?). Oh, and funny of funnies, what we really want is roast chicken with plain vegetables and we have yet to find chicken in the stores. Well, there were a few packages of drumsticks, but we aren’t fans. Nothing like a weekend snowstorm with almost record-breaking accumulations to slow down deliveries and ramp up demand. We had veggie pasta Sunday and fish tacos last night. Pork tenderloin is substituting for the chicken tonight. I imagine the chicken truck will arrive sometime soon and we can get our chicken fix later in the week.

I know we probably aren’t the only ones who are craving healthy dinners. And if they are easy to throw together, all the better. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

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Blackened fish on a bed of greens

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Citrus roasted chicken (hopefully your grocery store has chicken)

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Roasted vegetables over pasta

Lemon Pasta with Zucchini Ribbons

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The end of lemon week is here. I am on such a lemon kick – I think I have a few more recipes in me, but they will have to wait for another time. I’m sure I have enough to have another lemon week, but two in a row would be a bit much.

I have been making a variation of this pasta for several years now. It was originally inspired by a cooking show, though I have long forgotten which one. I used to make it by juicing a lemon into a serving bowl and adding chopped garlic and olive oil. Hot pasta on top, a quick toss and it was ready to serve, with lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Of course it has evolved over the years.

Now I prefer cooked garlic to raw, so I sauté the garlic while the pasta is cooking. I also started adding the zest from the lemon, because it adds such a punch of lemon flavor that highlights the garlic and olive oil somehow.

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The last time we had it I tried adding zucchini, cherry tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. We had some leftover cooked chicken in the fridge, so I tossed that in too, though Rich and Calvin preferred theirs without. The zucchini added color and texture and the cherry tomatoes were nice pops of color and sweetness. The fresh mozzarella added its milky creaminess that contrasted nicely with the nuttiness of the Parmesan. Note: I added a ton more Parmesan on top after I took the pictures. White drifts of Parmesan aren’t great when you want to show off the pasta, but they are essential at the table.

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I cooked a whole pound of pasta when I made it this last time, as we were fighting each other for the leftovers the time before that. This time we must not have been as hungry – we had a lot left over, which made for nice lunches. It all depends how many veggies you add and how many other dishes you have along with it. You could also leave out the chicken and serve this as a side dish with fish or roast chicken. We like it best hot, but room temperature isn’t bad either, if you want to go the pasta salad route.

I used to have a beautiful cobalt blue glass bowl that I liked to serve this in. Well, to be honest, I liked to serve everything in it. But the lemon pasta, with its flecks of yellow zest was pretty against the blue. I miss that bowl – it didn’t survive me dropping a plate on it while I was emptying the dishwasher a few years ago. Maybe someone will get me another one for my birthday or Christmas (hint, hint to Calvin and Rich).

Blue bowl or not, the pasta is just the thing to use up the zucchini and tomatoes that are going to start ripening soon. Or for the middle of winter when we are stuck with grocery store zucchini and tomatoes. Or in the fall when we are tired of the same old tomato sauces and zucchini bread. Or…well, you get the picture.

Download or print the recipe here.

Lemon Pasta with Zucchini Ribbons
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 6, with leftovers

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 medium zucchini, sliced into long thin slices
2 tablespoons white wine or water
salt
pepper
1 pound medium pasta shells, or any shape you prefer
1 lemon
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
1 cup cooked, diced chicken, optional
1 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, diced
Grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of water to boil to cook the pasta. While the water comes to a boil, heat the oil over medium low heat in a skillet and add the garlic. Cook until garlic is fragrant. Add zucchini and spread it out in the pan in a mostly even layer, trying to keep most of the zucchini slices intact. Add wine or water, salt and pepper and cover the pan.

When the water boils, cook the pasta according to package directions. While pasta and zucchini cook, zest and juice the lemon into a large serving bowl. Add the cherry tomatoes and chicken, if using.

Check the zucchini and remove the lid if there is too much liquid in the pan. Continue cooking until zucchini is tender.

Drain the cooked pasta and add to the serving bowl, along with the zucchini mixture. Add the mozzarella. Toss gently. Serve with grated Parmesan cheese. Leftovers reheat well.

Chicken Stuffed with Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto and Goat Cheese

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I came up with this recipe while I was running errands last week. I had been thinking about a recipe we used to make that called for cutting pockets in boneless chicken breasts and filling them with a mixture of sautéed onions, rehydrated sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese.

The chicken always sounded so much better than it turned out. I never let the onions cool long enough, resulting in a melting goo of goat cheese and sticky tomatoes that I wrestled to fit into the too-small chicken pockets. And I never diced the tomatoes small enough, so the chicken was full of chewy, assertive sun-dried tomato chunks. Despite the issues, we liked the flavors and I wanted to duplicate them in a format that appealed to us more.

I started with making a sun-dried tomato pesto instead of using chopped sun-dried tomatoes. That worked beautifully. I decided to use caramelized shallots instead of sautéed onions, for a mellower flavor. The goat cheese I kept the same, though I reduced the amount, to keep its sharpness from taking over the dish. I flattened and pounded the chicken, then spread on the filling ingredients before rolling it up. This worked much better than cutting pockets. The end result was everything I had envisioned – tender chicken wrapped around thin layers of tomato pesto, sprinkled here and there with pockets of sharp goat cheese and sweet shallots.

If you follow along regularly you read Monday’s post on caramelized shallots and Wednesday’s post about sun-dried tomato pesto. And if you are a loyal and obedient follower, you made each of these recipes the day I posted them. Now you are ready to make today’s chicken recipe.

Seriously, though, I made both the caramelized shallots and the sun-dried tomato pesto right before I made the chicken. Would I recommend this? Probably not, but it is certainly doable. Just be sure to factor in the time required when you are deciding what time to start. We didn’t eat dinner that night until 7:30, despite my best intentions. Nothing about the recipes is difficult, but you can’t exactly hurry the shallot caramelization process, unless you want to turn it into the shallot burning process.

To simplify things, you can make the shallots and pesto earlier in the day, or a few days ahead of time. The recipe will be a piece of cake if you already have the shallots and sun-dried tomato pesto waiting for you in the fridge.

Download or print the recipe here.

Chicken Stuffed with Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto and Goat Cheese
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

3-4 boneless chicken breasts
3-4 tablespoons sun-dried tomato pesto (homemade or purchased)
2 caramelized shallots (about ¼ cup cooked shallots), or more to taste
OR
¼ cup minced onion or shallot, sautéed until soft
2 ounces goat cheese, thinly sliced or crumbled
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt
pepper
¼ cup white wine or water

Special equipment:
Gallon-size zip lock bag
Meat mallet, rolling pin or heavy skillet
Toothpicks

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a medium casserole dish (8-inch square, 11 by 7 inch or equivalent). Set aside.

Trim any visible fat and gristle from chicken breasts.

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Working with one breast at a time, using your sharpest knife, partially separate tenderloin from breast and open it up from the main part of the breast like a book (the tenderloin is on the left side of the picture above).

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Start to cut into the thickest portion of the breast, across from the tenderloin side, opening it like a book as you go (the tenderloin is now on the right side in the picture above). If you start to get too close to cutting all the way through, change the direction of your knife to get back into the meat. Open the two sections of chicken like a book. You should have a large flat piece of chicken.

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If necessary, cut into thicker parts of chicken, almost all the way through, to make as large and as thin a piece of chicken as possible. Let the shape of the chicken breast guide you. It might look kind of strange (see above), but when you pound it, the chicken will flatten into one big piece.

Place each breast in the zip lock bag, one at a time, and pound gently with the meat mallet, rolling pin or skillet. You want to make the meat a little thinner and tenderize it, but you don’t have to pulverize it.

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Place each flattened breast, pretty side down, on a plate. Set out your sun-dried tomato pesto, shallots and goat cheese next to the plate. Have the baking dish next to your workspace. Have a few toothpicks handy, just in case you need them. You don’t want to have to search for ingredients once your hands are contaminated with raw chicken.

Spread each breast with about a tablespoon of tomato pesto, getting as close to the edge as possible. Divide shallots evenly between breasts. Top with slices or crumbles of goat cheese.

One at a time, roll each breast up long ways, like a cinnamon roll or pinwheel cookie. Place each breast in the prepared casserole dish, seam side down. If chicken won’t stay rolled, secure with a toothpick or two.

Drizzle chicken with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pour white wine or water in the bottom of the dish.

Bake breasts for about 30 minutes, uncovered, until chicken is cooked all the way through and tops are starting to lightly brown. Let chicken rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

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I was wandering the produce section of the grocery store last Friday, in search of sun-dried tomatoes – they have rearranged since the last time I bought them. I finally found them, hiding behind the grapefruit. Alongside the packages of dried tomatoes were jars of sun-dried tomato pesto and other tomato based spreads. I was tempted, since I had never bought the pesto before, but I decided to make my own after looking at the ingredients on a jar – water, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, sugar, salt and various thickeners. I figured I could make my own and it would be better, and cheaper.

I whirled the dried tomatoes in the food processor, along with two cloves of garlic. I ended up with a processor full of tiny, sticky bits of tomatoes. I added olive oil and whirled it again. Now I had a processor full of tiny, oily bits of tomatoes. The pesto definitely needed more moisture. I didn’t want to make it too oily by adding more olive oil, so I thought of adding boiling water to rehydrate the tomatoes. Probably if I had been smart, I would have done that as my very first step. My way worked, after many tries of adding a tablespoon of water and processing and then adding another tablespoon. I think I was too hesitant at first. I used almost a half cup of water, but I ended up with a lovely, smooth paste. I tasted it and it was flat and one-dimensional.

After adding a pinch of sugar to offset the acidity of the tomatoes, as well as a little salt and pepper, it still needed something. Traditional basil pesto has pine nuts, so I figured I should add a few nuts. I didn’t have any pine nuts and pecans seemed a perfect partner for sun-dried tomatoes, so I threw in a few and whirled it again. Pretty much perfection – intense, almost meaty, tomato flavor, with richness from the pecans. The garlic was a little sharp, so I will probably use only one clove next time. Especially if I am going to use it raw, as a spread for bread or tossed with hot pasta.

I ended up with more than a cup of tomato pesto and a little goes a long way – I am looking forward to figuring out how to use my stash. I already used some as a layer inside stuffed chicken (post coming Friday) and am planning on spreading a thin layer on pizza instead of our regular tomato sauce. And then I might make crostini with a layer of the tomato pesto and a sprinkling of goat cheese or Parmesan cheese. I tried a version of that right after I made the pesto, and it was good, but it would have been better after a minute under the broiler to toast the bread and melt the cheese.

What would you make with sun-dried tomato pesto?

Download or print recipe here.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto
From The Cook’s Life
Makes about 1 cup

Use in chicken dishes, as a different kind of pizza sauce, stirred into hot pasta or spread on crostini for an appetizer.

Adjust the garlic and olive oil amounts to suit your tastes. Two cloves makes it very garlicky, one will be milder. More olive oil will produce a richer paste. Feel free to use any nuts you prefer – I like the rich sweetness of pecans with the tomatoes.

3 ounces dry packed sun-dried tomatoes
1-2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons pecan halves
salt
pepper
1-2 teaspoons sugar, optional
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
¼-½ cup boiling water, approximately

Whirl tomatoes, garlic and pecans in a food processor until finely chopped. Add salt, pepper and sugar, if using, to taste, along with 2-3 tablespoons olive oil and process again. If tomatoes are really dry, and you just have oily bits instead of a paste, add about ¼ cup of boiling water and process again. Continue adding water and processing until you have a mostly smooth paste. Store in the fridge in a tightly covered container for up to a week. Freeze for longer storage.

A Trio of Dinner Ideas

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I am in a bit of a dry spell, both in cooking and writing blog posts. I have been making a lot of old standbys for dinner instead of trying new recipes. This is well and good for easy cooking, but it doesn’t give me much material for the blog. I thought I would highlight a few past posts just in case you also need new dinner ideas. I can’t be the only one who is looking for inspiration. I am hoping that looking back at what I have cooked in the past will give me inspiration for the future.

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Citrus recipes are everywhere these days, which is fitting since it is the height of citrus season. We are lucky enough in our modern age to be able to get good citrus fruit year round, but it is truly best in the winter. I posted about citrus roasted chicken back in the summer, but the waning (I hope) days of winter are the perfect time to perk up your plate and palate with the bright flavors of oranges, lemons and limes.

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If you are in the mood for something different, try spuds and salads. You can get as fancy as you like when topping your potatoes, or you can keep it simple with butter and a bit of cheese. The same goes for the salad – go all out with winter greens and vegetables, or stick with simplicity. You can whip up the salad and potato toppings in the time it takes for the potatoes to bake, leaving you ready to sit down in no time.

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Or you can go the slow cooker route and try garlic pulled pork. Take a few minutes in the morning to throw everything in the pot and you will have tender, garlic-scented pork ready when evening rolls around. Pair it with simple sides, or pile it on buns and you are nine tenths of the way to eating dinner.

Where do you turn when you are out of inspiration in the kitchen? Recipe books, online, takeout menus or somewhere else?

Date Night Flatbread Pizzas

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Rich and I had planned to go out to dinner last night and then maybe to a movie. Calvin has the day off from school today and had an overnight last night with my parents, so we were footloose and fancy free. Of course, when it came time to pick a restaurant, Rich and I were clueless. Even after running through a litany of old favorites and new possibilities, we ended up with a big, fat zero. The process of choosing was stressing us out, so we decided to stop trying to force it and make something at home instead.

Flatbread pizzas had caught my eye on several of the menus we perused. I do find that name kind of funny, and even redundant – what is a pizza, if not a flatbread, after all? But it is a recognizable thing on restaurant menus, so I’ll stick with the name, even if it offends my literal tendencies just a little bit.

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I mixed up our standby whole wheat pizza dough and let it rise while we concocted and gathered the rest of the ingredients. We had one shallot, which I decided to caramelize. It was as easy as pie to let it slowly transform to a lovely golden brown in the pan while we worked on the rest of dinner. I’m not sure why I have never caramelized shallots before, though if I had, we would have realized that a trip to the store for a few more would have been worth it. We both agreed we wanted at least twice as many shallots on our flatbreads.

In addition to the shallots, we used Jarlsberg, mozzarella, ricotta and Parmigiano-Reggiano, a little diced chicken breast from the freezer, fresh rosemary from my plant in the flowerbed, thinly sliced apple, garlic and olive oil.

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We made one flatbread with garlic, rosemary, chicken and mozzarella, one with rosemary, garlic and all the cheeses and two with apple, Jarlsberg and shallots. They were as good as some restaurant flatbread pizzas we have had. And we got to make them with exactly the toppings we wanted.

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Our evening was a little more low key than our original plans, but we weren’t complaining. We got a cozy evening together, cooking, eating and spending time doing exactly what we wanted – sounds like a perfect date night to me.

And a New Recipe is Born – Zucchini Pesto Pasta

Last Saturday we wanted an easy dinner that we all would like. Calvin is willing to try more foods every day and we are trying to foster his adventurous side. We planned to make pesto pasta with the leftover pesto from making Pesto Three Cheese Pizza. We had several zucchini in the fridge, so I decided a side of Parmesan Crusted Zucchini Chips would be good too. All three of us were in the kitchen, which sometimes makes for interesting dishes.

Calvin and I were slicing the zucchini in the food processor and we ended up with almost a whole sliced zucchini that wouldn’t fit on our baking sheets. I didn’t want to waste it, but we certainly had enough zucchini chips without it. I suggested we sauté it in some olive oil and add it to our pasta, but Calvin wanted to make pesto out of it. We compromised, mincing the zucchini in the food processor and then sautéing it with some garlic.

When the zucchini “pesto” was softened and starting to brown on the bottom, we added it to the hot pasta, along with a spoonful of pesto and a splash of olive oil. A quick toss and we were ready to customize our individual servings. Our pesto pasta is usually hot pasta stirred together with fresh pesto, diced mozzarella, tomatoes (sun-dried or fresh, depending on the season), cooked chicken and Parmesan cheese.

This time Rich and I had found fresh mozzarella pearls at the store. I wondered if Calvin would eat them, since he has only eaten regular, part-skim mozzarella. He surprised us by eating the pearls with no hesitation, popping them into his mouth like popcorn. Calvin had his zucchini pesto pasta with mozzarella pearls and Parmesan cheese. Rich and I added chopped garden tomatoes and cooked chicken.

Calvin couldn’t stop talking about our new dish, and how he had the idea for the zucchini pesto. He ate two big helpings and finished off the leftovers the next day. Not bad for a picky eater who looks at most vegetables with suspicion. New recipes and kitchen innovations don’t have to be totally groundbreaking to be keepers. Let loose in the kitchen and see what you come up with.

Zucchini Pesto Pasta
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

This is the perfect weeknight dinner – you can prepare your ingredients in the time it takes to cook the pasta. It is also a great way to use leftover chicken from another meal. Or you can leave the chicken out to make it a vegetarian dish. Mix the pasta with the toppings right in the serving bowl to save on dishes.

¾ pound dried pasta (choose a short, stubby shape that will hold the sauce, like bowties, elbows, rotini or a similar shape)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided (you may not need all of the olive oil)
1-3 cloves garlic, minced (we used three)
1 small zucchini, minced finely by hand or in a food processor
2 tablespoons basil pesto, homemade or commercial
1-2 cups chopped, cooked chicken
1 cup fresh mozzarella pearls, or diced mozzarella cheese
1-2 medium tomatoes, diced
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Bring a large pot of water to a boil; add pasta when it comes to a full rolling boil and cook according to package directions. Meanwhile, in a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. When oil is hot, reduce the heat to low and add the minced garlic. Cook garlic, stirring often, until it is soft, but not browned. Add a bit more olive oil (up to a tablespoon) if the garlic starts sticking to the pan or looking dry. Once the garlic is soft, add the zucchini to the garlic mixture. Increase the heat to medium and cook the zucchini, stirring frequently, until soft and just starting to brown. It should start to resemble light green pesto as the zucchini softens.

The basil pesto is on the left and the zucchini pesto is on the right.

While the pasta and zucchini cook, assemble the rest of the ingredients. When pasta is cooked, drain and pour into a large serving bowl. Use a larger bowl than you think you need so you have room to toss the pasta. Add the cooked zucchini mixture and the pesto and toss pasta gently to distribute. If pasta looks dry, add up to a tablespoon of olive oil and toss again. Add chicken, mozzarella and tomatoes and toss gently. Serve immediately, with Parmesan cheese for topping. This reheats well in the microwave if you have leftovers.

Download the recipe here.

Slow Cooker Chicken to the Rescue

I have been skimping in the kitchen lately. Summer activities have been ramping up as school vacation comes to a close. That, coupled with more freelance work, means that I am running every which way but into the kitchen. It does help to have some easy dinners planned as each week unfolds. I have just about exhausted all of our usual suspects, but Chicken in the Pot always is a winner.

I posted on Chicken in the Pot back in December, when the blog was only a few weeks old and I had about ten followers. This recipe deserves to have more exposure than that. And you deserve to have it in your quick dinner line-up. It needs a more imaginative name, but Rich brought it into the marriage from his childhood, and there are some childhood traditions you don’t mess with.

If you need a dinner for busy days (who doesn’t), or if you want to get dinner on the table without heating up the kitchen, this is it. I wish I had more slow cooker recipes in my cooking repertoire. I would love to use mine more, especially if it helps me to get out of the boring dinner routine of this summer. What do you like to make in your slow cooker?

Chicken in the Pot
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4, or 2 with leftovers
Doubles easily, if your slow cooker is big enough

1 15-ounce can crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
OR 2 cups tomato sauce, low-sodium preferred
2 6-ounce cans tomato paste (optional)
2 cloves garlic, diced (fresh or from a jar)
salt
pepper
3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Hot cooked rice, for serving
Parmesan cheese, for serving

Place tomatoes, tomato paste, if using, and garlic in a slow cooker. Add salt and pepper to taste and mix well. Add chicken, pushing it down under the sauce. Cook on Low for 6-12 hours; the longer, the better. Serve over rice, topped with grated Parmesan cheese. Add a side of steamed broccoli or a salad and dinner is served.

 Download the recipe here.

Chicken Fingers to the Rescue

Everyone has those days when they don’t want to cook, but eating out isn’t an option. You know, the days when nothing goes right, and you are tired, but the thought of eating out just doesn’t appeal. What do you eat on those days? PBJ sandwiches, breakfast for dinner, salad?

The other day I had one of those days. We had just returned from our family reunion over the weekend and were trying to get back into the routine – catch up on laundry, restock at the grocery store and get the house back in order (how did it get so messy while we were gone?). Then I found water coming up out of the floor drain in the basement. Not a great way to begin the week.

I really didn’t want to make dinner, but we had been eating away from home for four days. And Calvin, picky (discerning?) eater that he is, had been eating a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. I wanted to make him something else, and I was too tired to want to go out. I had planned on making homemade chicken fingers before all the mess with the basement, and I had all the stuff, so I found the energy somewhere to make the chicken strips.

Thankfully, after a day of cleaning up the basement and arranging for plumbers, mixed in with running errands, the chicken fingers turned out beautifully. Nice and crispy and golden brown. I make these often, because they are one of the few ways Calvin will eat “real” chicken. But sometimes I hurry too much, or adjust the baking time or temp to mesh with whatever else I am making and they aren’t as good as they could be. This time I got everything right. Now if I could only fix the plumbing issues as easily (second installment of that story tomorrow).

Baked Chicken Fingers
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

Feel free to adjust the spices to suit your tastes. If you would rather use chopped garlic instead of the powder, mix it in with the eggs so it will be less likely to burn in the oven.

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 cup breadcrumbs (panko, regular or homemade)
salt
pepper
paprika
garlic powder
cayenne
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 eggs
2-3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease a baking sheet or broiler pan. These get slightly crispier on the bottoms if you use a broiler pan or a rack, but they are fine on a baking sheet.

Cut chicken into strips. It is up to you how small you want to go. I usually cut off the tenderloin and then cut the rest of the breast into two or three pieces, the long way, depending on how big it is, to get three or four pieces from each breast. Trim off all visible fat and nasty bits of gristle.

In a shallow bowl or on a plate, combine breadcrumbs and spices. Use a few healthy shakes of each, adjusting them to your preferences. You might want to go easy on the cayenne, unless you like things really spicy. Drizzle the seasoned crumbs with olive oil and mix well with a fork until all the crumbs are evenly moistened with the oil.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs until well combined. Sprinkle the chicken strips with flour, turn and sprinkle again to coat all surfaces with flour. Dip the flour-coated chicken in the eggs, then in the crumb mixture. Press lightly on the chicken to get more crumbs to stick. Gently place chicken on prepared baking sheet.

Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, depending on size. Serve hot. These are best the day you make them, though leftovers are tasty, just not as crispy.

Download the recipe here.

Dinner Inspired by Bok Choy

My dad has a big garden and loves to share his produce. We were at my parents’ house on Saturday to celebrate Mother’s Day and were taking the mandatory tour of the garden. I shouldn’t say “mandatory” since that makes it seem like we don’t enjoy these walks through the garden. They are always impressive and make me envy his space, though you would have to be retired or a teacher with summers off (which he used to be) to have the time to take care of such a big garden.

The garden tours almost always end with Dad giving us some vegetable or other to take home. This week Dad cut off a beautiful bunch of bok choy for us. Immediately Rich and I looked at each other and said, “Asian noodles for dinner this week!”

The original recipe, Baked Sesame Chicken Noodles was from a Cooking Light issue from 2004 and is a favorite, when we can get good bok choy. As written, the recipe calls for red bell peppers and shiitake mushrooms, neither of which are favorites of ours. I usually replace them with snow peas and extra bok choy. Feel free to reduce the bok choy to 2 cups and use 1 cup red bell pepper strips and 8 ounces shiitake mushroom caps, sliced. Or use vegetables that you like, to equal 4 cups. As with any casserole or noodle dish, the vegetables are easy to substitute for ones you like. Just be sure they are mostly cooked before the casserole goes in the oven, since it bakes for only 20 minutes.

The original recipe also called for cream sherry (2 tablespoons) and rice vinegar (1 tablespoon). The first time I made it I didn’t have either, so I used dry white wine. Again, if you want to go with the original recipe, feel free. I am including the recipe as I make it, because that is how I have made it for years and that is how it works for us.

If you aren’t familiar with bok choy, it is a vegetable related to cabbage that is often used in Asian dishes. It looks like white celery that has been blown up at the bottom and leafed out in dark green leaves at the top. Not the best description, but the picture should help you find it. You use both the white stalk and the green leafy parts. It tastes a lot sweeter and milder than cabbage, without the hot bite cabbage can have. I have never eaten it raw, but cooked it has a nice sweetness, if it is fresh. The older it is, and the stuff in the grocery store can be older than we would like to know, the stronger it tastes. Not that the strong taste is bad, but we prefer it sweeter. Thanks for the garden-fresh bok choy, Dad!

Be sure and post in the comments how you make the recipe yours. And post what vegetable finds have inspired your dinner plans.

Baked Sesame Chicken Noodles
adapted from Cooking Light
by The Cook’s Life
4 large main dish servings

 8 ounces uncooked spaghetti or angel hair pasta
1 cup low sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon dark sesame oil or olive oil
2 (6-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breast halves, cut in ½-inch pieces*
2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger (about a 2-inch piece)
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup low sodium soy sauce
3 tablespoons dry white wine or dry vermouth
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper
4 cups thinly sliced bok choy**
1 cup snow peas, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 cup green onions, sliced
2 teaspoons sesame seeds

Topping:
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
1 cup panko breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a 3-quart casserole dish with cooking spray and set aside. Combine chicken broth and cornstarch and set aside. Cook pasta according to package directions, leaving al dente. Drain and set aside. While pasta is cooking, heat sesame oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chicken, ginger and garlic and cook for 3 minutes, stirring once. Stir in soy sauce and cook 2 minutes, stirring frequently.

Stir broth mixture and add to skillet. Cook 2 minutes, stirring constantly, or until mixture boils and sauce thickens slightly. Remove from heat and add wine and crushed red pepper. Add bok choy, snow peas, green onions, 2 teaspoons sesame seeds and cooked pasta. Mix gently with large spoon or tongs until well combined.

Pour mixture into greased baking dish. Gently spread into an even layer. Mix butter, 2 teaspoons sesame seeds and panko in a small bowl. Top noodle mixture with bread crumbs. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes, or until topping begins to brown and sauce is bubbly. Serve immediately. Leftovers reheat well.

*Can use about 2 cups leftover, cooked chicken.
**After washing the bok choy, cut each stalk in half lengthwise and then cut into thin strips horizontally. Use both the white stalk and the dark green leafy parts.

Download the recipe here.