Salvage Smelly Cutting Boards with Salt and Lemons

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I am a fan of wooden cutting boards. They are easy on my knives, they look pretty and they last forever with just a little TLC. They do have their drawbacks. They can’t go in the dishwasher and they sometimes pick up aromas from whatever you have been chopping on them.

I speak most specifically of onions, garlic and shallots. Some of my cutting boards have a definite smell of onions when you get them wet. The aroma lingers, even after umpteen scrubbing sessions. I even got the sandpaper out and went to town. No luck.

The problem came to a head when I cut an apple on a cutting board and then used it to serve said apple. Partway through the meal Rich and I both commented on how weird the apple tasted. Yep, eau de onion. Not a good combination.

It was time to pull out the big guns. Or rather, whatever we could think of that we felt comfortable using on a food preparation surface. Anything chemical was out – I was afraid it would soak into the wood. I remembered that I had stained my white Corian counters with blueberries not long ago. I scrubbed the stains with salt and they were gone in no time, with just a little effort.

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I decided to use salt on the cutting boards. Then I started thinking about other food safe fresheners. Lemons came to mind – they work on garlic and onion smells on my hands and to freshen the microwave.

I made a paste of salt and lemon juice right on one of the cutting boards. I scrubbed it with a nylon scrubbing pad until the salt was all dissolved and not abrasive anymore. I repeated the process and then rinsed the board clean. No onion smell. I let it dry and took another whiff. A hint of onion. I repeated the process. Voila, no onion.

Salt, lemon and a little elbow grease did the trick. I had to re-oil the boards after that, but I now can cut apples and bread on my boards without adding a note of onion.

What are your favorite kitchen cleaning tips?

Fall Garden’s Last Gasp

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Our fall weather is definitely here. And the garden knows it. We are down to one tomato plant and it isn’t producing much. The nights are just too chilly and the days aren’t warm enough to compensate. I do still have two basil plants and a robust crop of garlic.

The garlic was a surprise – the plants are growing from the bulbs I missed when I harvested in early summer. We will let the bulbs grow over the winter, divide them in the spring and harvest them in early summer. This will be the first time I will be overwintering anything and I’m a little bit excited. Garden nerd alert.

While my garden is limping to the finish, my dad’s garden is flourishing. A couple of weeks ago, we had my parents over for dinner and they brought us a beautiful selection of eggplant and red bell peppers from their garden. I couldn’t resist taking few pictures. I took a shot of the biggest pepper in my hand, for scale. Dad said he brought me the largest pepper he had ever grown. I am honored. And there is absolutely no hidden sarcasm in that. I know how hard it is to battle the critters for the ripening peppers.

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I am having a good time using up the beautiful garden bounty. We sautéed the smaller eggplant for pasta. One of the big ones became what we call eggplant croutons – diced, tossed with egg and bread crumbs and baked until crispy. Perfect on top of pasta or just to eat hot out of the oven. The last big one is destined to be roasted and mixed with roasted garlic to make dip for bread. The peppers will all be roasted and frozen to wait for red pepper soup or to become part of tacos. Oh, the garden riches!

What are your favorite fall vegetables right now?

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.

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.

Bacon and Date Calzones

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We have homemade pizza in one form or another about every other week. We have tried all sorts of toppings, but haven’t done calzones in years. Calvin saw a commercial for some pizza place that had a crust-topped pizza. He thought it looked good and I remarked that we could do that, but ours would be better. Somehow that morphed into making calzones.

Rich had seen a menu for a local restaurant that only does calzones, with a fig and bacon version that intrigued him. When I made these, we didn’t have any figs, but we had a lot of dates, so I thought we would substitute. I wasn’t sure about the combo, so I used only a few bits of date and crisp bacon in each small calzone. As soon as we ate our first ones, we realized that we had made deconstructed bacon-wrapped dates in a pocket. Next time I will use more dates and bacon to really get the flavor.

The rest of the filling was shredded mozzarella, roasted garlic, ricotta and olive oil. Calvin had his without the dates and bacon, to make inside out white pizza. We made extras of his for him to have as after school snacks (and because we ran out of bacon).

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The instructions and assembly seem like a long process. You can do this in steps – make the dough the day before or in the morning, cook the bacon and chop the dates when you have a minute, shred the cheese and chop the garlic ahead of time. If you aren’t doing it all at once it won’t be as daunting.

As you can see from the pictures, our calzones are irregular shapes. Calvin was helping me and the goal was to get dinner made so we could eat. Aesthetics went out the window in favor of teenage help to get dinner on the table. And, as always, they tasted just fine, even if they weren’t pretty.

The following recipe doesn’t have exact amounts, because I was winging it, which you should too. Use what you have and see what works. Just remember not to fill the calzones too full or you will have leaks. Not that leaking cheese is all bad, since it browns on the pan and makes a nice addition to the calzone, but sometimes it makes a pathway for all of the filling to escape, leaving you with an empty shell.

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Have fun with your calzones and post in the comments if you have a favorite filling idea.

Download or print just the recipe here.

Bacon and Date Calzones
From The Cook’s Life
Makes 10-16 calzones, depending on size

I am giving only approximate amounts, since I didn’t measure and you need to adjust to your tastes.

1 recipe whole wheat pizza dough, mixed and risen (or your preferred dough)
Olive oil
Garlic, roasted and mashed, or minced if raw (4 cloves roasted, 1 or 2 if raw)
4-8 slices cooked bacon, crumbled
6-12 dates, diced
1-2 cups shredded mozzarella
½-1 cup ricotta, whole milk preferred (do not use fat free)
Parmesan cheese, grated

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or lightly grease.

Divide dough in half on a floured surface. Cover one half of dough to keep it from drying out while you work with the other half.

Roll dough out to a rough square or rectangle, about ¼ inch thick. Cut dough into 5-8 squares – size will depend on how big you want your calzones.

As you fill your squares, be sure to keep the edges free of any toppings so the dough will stick together when you seal the filled calzone. Drizzle about ½ teaspoon of olive oil in the middle of half of each square (the other half will be the top and gets no filling).

Spread a little garlic on each oiled square. Top garlic with bacon, dates, a little mozzarella and a tablespoon, or less, of ricotta.  Add a sprinkling of Parmesan to each calzone. Make sure you don’t over-fill your calzones, or you will have trouble encasing the filling in the dough and you will have leaks.

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Fold the empty side of dough over the filling of each calzone and press the edges to seal. Use a little water as glue if the dough doesn’t stick to itself. Transfer the calzones to the prepared baking sheet and sprinkle each with a little more Parmesan, if desired. Prick the tops with a fork to make steam vents.

Repeat steps with remaining dough and topping ingredients.

Bake calzones for 15-25 minutes, or until golden brown on top and bottom. Baking time will depend on size. Check them after 10-15 minutes to make sure they aren’t getting too brown.

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Let calzones cool on baking sheet about five minutes before serving. These store well – reheat in the oven or a toaster oven for best results.

Crunchy Rice

It has been a while since I have posted a recipe for a side dish, and I thought it was time. Cookies and homemade ravioli are all fine and good, but weeknight dinner dishes deserve some time too. I don’t usually put a lot of time into my side dishes, which sometimes leads to boring dinners (maybe I should look for some new side dish recipes). Crunchy rice is super easy to put together, but a lot more interesting than plain rice or baked potatoes (my fallback starchy sides).

This is a variation on a rice dish my mom made when I was a kid, with cream soup and butter. I skip the cream soup in favor of chicken broth, and the butter in favor of olive oil. Rice and one clove of garlic and it’s ready for the oven. It bakes up crunchy and browned around the edges and lightly browned on top. The toasted edges provide a nice contrast to the moist, fluffy rice in the middle.

I love dinner dishes that can go in the oven and do their thing while I prep the rest of dinner, clean out the sink or fold the last load of laundry for the day. I usually make this rice to have with pork tenderloin or roast chicken that can bake at the same time. Sometimes, when I’m really on the ball, I’ll throw sweet potatoes in 30-45 minutes before the rice so they will all be done at the same time. Depending on the size of the chicken, I’ll put it in at the same time as the sweet potatoes and set a timer to remind me when to start the rice.

As with most of my recipes, feel free to adjust the recipe to suit your tastes. I usually use chicken broth, but you could use vegetable or beef broth. I don’t use bouillon cubes or granules because they are mostly salt, but I have found a concentrated broth paste called Better Than Bouillon that I use often. It is still pretty salty, but as long as I don’t add any extra salt, it works. I use a small amount of olive oil, but you could use more, or use melted butter. And you can get all crazy and add things like mushrooms, onions, shallots or any other sautéed vegetables you like if you want something that goes beyond the simple version I have here. Be sure to post in the comments if you come up with a variation you want to share.

Crunchy Rice
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

Use a smaller dish for more fluffy rice and fewer crunchy parts; use a larger dish for more crunchy parts and a smaller amount of fluffy rice.

1 ½ cups jasmine or basmati rice
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
4 cups chicken broth
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Heat the broth to boiling. Grease a 9 by 13 inch, or slightly smaller, glass or ceramic casserole dish. Spread the rice in an even layer and drizzle with the olive oil. Sprinkle with the minced garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste (you may need little or no salt, depending on how salty your broth is). Pour the hot broth over the rice and stir gently. Bake rice for 40-45 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed and rice is lightly browned on top and brown and crispy around the edges. Serve hot. This is best the day you make it.

Download the recipe here.

Citrus Roasted Chicken

I can hear fall coming. No doubt that is because of the leaves falling from the trees because of the drought. But I am ready for cozy fall days when it is cold enough outside to make me want to take refuge in the warm house. I love those windy, cloudy days when there is a nip in the air and the summer humidity is a distant memory. And I love the dinners I make on those days – roasted chicken, baked potatoes, casseroles, winter squash. I am looking forward to days when the heat of the oven is a welcome addition to the furnace, instead of a burden to the air-conditioner.

I came up with Citrus Roasted Chicken after trying a recipe for citrus chicken that called for freshly squeezed orange juice. It was ho-hum and not memorable at all. I decided if I was going to make citrus chicken, I would make citrus chicken. I used the zest and juice from an orange, a lime and a lemon. It came out tart, bright and bold.

Citrus Roasted Chicken is the perfect bridge between the seasons. It has the citrus tang that is in so many summer dishes, along with the moist richness of roasted meat. Since it isn’t quite fall yet, even though the temperatures are moderating a bit, I like to cook my whole dinner in the oven to maximize both my efficiency and the oven’s. Baked potatoes or a rice casserole go well with the chicken. Throw a few sweet potatoes in the oven and you can take care of a vegetable too.

What do you look forward to cooking when the weather cools down?

Citrus Roasted Chicken
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4-6

1 orange
1 lemon
1 lime
1-3 cloves of garlic, peeled
Salt
Pepper
3-4 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a dish or pan large enough to hold the chicken in one layer, with a little room between the breasts. Set aside.

Zest the orange, lemon and lime with a microplane grater and set zest aside. Juice the citrus fruit into a separate bowl and set aside.

Begin chopping the garlic. When you have the garlic finely chopped, sprinkle it with a little salt and continue chopping.  Use the side of the knife to mash and smear the garlic and salt into the cutting board. Repeat chopping and mashing until you have a garlic paste.

Combine garlic paste with citrus zest and a few grinds of black pepper.

Gently loosen the skin on the chicken breasts, running your fingers between the skin and the meat. Divide the paste evenly between the breasts, spreading it on the meat, under the skin. Reposition the skin, if necessary, to cover each breast. Place chicken in the prepared dish or pan. Pour the reserved citrus juice over the breasts.

Roast chicken for about an hour, or until skin is browned and juices run clear when pricked with a fork or knife. Let chicken rest for a few minutes before serving.

Download the recipe here.

One Zucchini and Three Tomatoes Lead to Pizza

 

Last Saturday we were trying to decide what we wanted to make for dinner. We didn’t really want to go to the store, and we wanted to make something new and different. We decided on pizza, but we wanted to change up the toppings to make something more interesting than our usual pepperoni or pesto pizza.

Part of cooking, and coming up with new recipes, is thinking about what you know how to do and how you can change it. This doesn’t always work if you are trying to change a baking recipe, since the ratios and chemistry matter – but with pizza or most dinner recipes, you don’t have to be as careful. Start by looking through pantry and fridge to see what you have on hand.

Our kitchen search uncovered one zucchini, a few small garden tomatoes, garlic paste, part of a container of fresh mozzarella pearls, a small chunk of part-skim mozzarella and a big chunk of Parmesan (Sam’s is a great place to get this for a great price).

The garlic paste was left over from our anniversary dinner at a tapas restaurant (Modesto for you St. Louis readers – definitely worth a trip). One of the dishes we ordered was fried garlic. We had expected to get a plate of chopped garlic that had been cooked with oil. We were surprised when we got several skewers filled with deep fried whole garlic cloves. They were sweet and nutty, but with a definite garlic kick when smeared on bread. We ate about three cloves each and had at least 20 to take home. I mashed them with a fork, and froze the resulting paste to use later – tripled bagged to keep the aromas from invading the freezer.

The paste was too thick to spread on our soft dough, so I mixed it with a little olive oil, but it was still too stiff. I didn’t want to add more oil, so I added a bit of white wine. Then I added some grated Parmesan for flavor, which made it too thick again. More wine and it was ready to spread.

We topped the garlic paste with thin slices of the zucchini and tomatoes. I wanted to avoid any possibility of crunchy zucchini, so after I sliced it, I spread it in a single layer on a plate and microwaved it for a couple of minutes, until the slices were starting to soften. We topped the veggies with a scattering of mozzarella pearls and a thin layer of grated part-skim mozzarella. A dusting of Parmesan and it was ready for the oven.

 

The pizza surpassed our expectations by a mile. The edges of each zucchini slice crisped, and the cheese on top of them browned – resulting in zucchini chips right on top of our pizza. The garlic sauce was the star of the show, though. Even after baking at high heat we could taste the wine, which added a nice flavor dimension. The garlic was a definite presence, but not overpowering. I am definitely going to experiment with roasting a head of garlic or sautéing minced garlic in olive oil to try to recreate the garlic paste without having to deep fry it.

The next time you are looking for ways to bring some interest to your meals, let the inner adventurer free. Think about dishes you have had in restaurants, or recipes you have read. Use the contents of your fridge, pantry and freezer for inspiration. You never know what new favorites you might create.

A fish dish for hectic days

Whether your busy days are during the week, on the weekend, or both, you deserve to have a few easy recipes to fall back on when you are crunched for time.  I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but fish is one of the easiest things to make in a hurry.  Where we live, smack in the middle of the U.S., frozen fish really is our best bet for getting fresh fish, at least in my opinion. I keep a few frozen tilapia filets on hand for quick dinners.

If you are planning ahead, you can thaw your frozen fish in the fridge overnight, or you can thaw it, in its wrapper, in cold water. Or, if you have the cooking time, you can cook it frozen. I’m not sure what the experts say on this, but I have had fine results putting fully frozen fish in the oven.

I have watched cooking shows where they cook fish “en papillote” and I’ve had it in restaurants, but I hadn’t tried cooking this way until yesterday. In case you haven’t seen this before, this is fish cooked in a parchment paper envelope, so it steams in the oven. It looks fancy, but it really fits into the fast and easy cooking category. The fish is beautifully cooked and there is a minimum of clean-up.

I was going to use lemon juice and zest on my fish, but when I pulled the lemon out of the fridge, still in its plastic bag from the produce section, my thumb went right through its moldy, soft peel. Can I say, “Ewwww!”? Luckily I had lemon zest in the freezer from a lemon I needed for juice a while back. Always (or at least when you think of it) zest your citrus before you use the rest of the fruit, and stash the zest in the freezer for culinary emergencies.

Topped fish, ready for its parchment wrapping.

So I drizzled my (partially) thawed fish with a tiny bit of olive oil, about ½ teaspoon for each filet. Then I topped them with sliced garlic and lemon zest. I folded my parchment around them, put them in a glass dish and baked them for 30 minutes. That may seem like a long time to you, but they were still about half-frozen and we really don’t like “wet” fish. I know most people might think this results in overdone fish, so adjust your cooking times to suit your tastes.

My fish packets, ready for the oven. Notice my folding got better as I worked my way from the right to the left.

Pair with easy sides, like baked potatoes, rice or couscous and some steamed veggies or fresh fruit and dinner is served.

“Fancy” Lemon Garlic Tilapia
from The Cook’s Life
serves 4

4 tilapia filets
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 small cloves garlic
zest from one lemon
salt, optional
pepper, optional
Parchment paper or aluminum foil

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay out four large pieces of parchment paper, or aluminum foil if you don’t have parchment. Lay fish filet in the middle of each piece of parchment. Drizzle each filet with about ½ teaspoon olive oil. Peel the garlic and slice it into the thinnest slices you can. Divide garlic and lemon zest evenly between the filets. Salt and pepper each filet lightly, if desired.

Fold the top half of the parchment (or foil) down to meet the bottom half of the parchment. Start folding the bottom edge over the top edge, in small pleats all around the fish. You will end up with a semicircular package. Repeat with the other filets and place them in a large dish or on a baking sheet.

Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until fish flakes easily with a fork, and is done to your tastes. If you are using frozen filets, you may have to add a few extra minutes to your cooking time.

Download the recipe here.