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.

Roasted Green Beans

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I have been roasting green beans all summer, but I realized yesterday I had never shared the recipe. I thought I had better get the recipe posted before green bean season is totally gone.

I am always looking for new ways to make vegetables that my family will eat. They aren’t crazy about boiled or sautéed green beans, but they will eat them roasted. Go figure. It might have something to do with the Parmesan cheese I put on top. I think it also has something to do with the roasting. Roasting vegetables brings out the best in them, I think.

The hardest part about making the beans is snapping off the tops. Really. They take care of themselves in the oven. And then they are ready for the table, in all their caramelized glory, topped with a shower of snowy Parmesan cheese.

The only note I have is to be careful with the oil. The beans don’t absorb the oil like other vegetables, and if you use too much they are greasy. The recipe is correct – you only need a couple of teaspoons of oil to keep the beans from drying out.

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Download or print the recipe here.

Roasted Green Beans
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

¾-1 pound green beans
1-2 teaspoons olive or canola oil
salt
Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash the beans and snap off their stem ends. Spread the beans on a baking sheet large enough to hold them in a single layer. Drizzle them with the oil and stir to coat. Sprinkle with salt. Roast for 12-15 minutes, or until the beans are starting to lightly brown on the bottom. Stir the beans and return to the oven for another 3-5 minutes, until beans are tender and spotted all over with light and dark brown spots. The beans will shrink and shrivel quite a bit. Top with Parmesan cheese and serve hot. Leftovers reheat well in the microwave or a skillet.

Fried Okra

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Crispy, brown and salty – fried okra was the only way I would eat okra when I was a kid. My parents enjoyed whole, boiled okra sometimes, but I never could get past the gelatinous juices the okra exuded when it was boiled. When you toss raw, sliced okra with a little flour and cornmeal, those same gelatinous juices make a batter that browns up in the smallest bit of oil to make the crispy deliciousness that is fried okra.

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I have never really worked from a recipe to make fried okra. I usually just toss the slices with flour and cornmeal and then add water until the mix looks right. I had to pull out the measuring cups and spoons to figure out how much of everything to use this time.

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This is one recipe where more isn’t better. It doesn’t take much oil for the okra to crisp – if you add too much you end up with greasy okra. And be patient with the heat. Almost every summer I burn a batch of okra because I impatiently turn up the heat to hurry things along and then smell the mistake. Do as I say, not as I do, young grasshoppers.

Download or print the recipe here.

Fried Okra
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

¾-1 pound okra
¼ teaspoon salt, plus additional for serving
¼ cup cornmeal, approximately
¼ cup all-purpose flour, approximately
1-2 tablespoons water, approximately
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil, approximately

Cut tops off okra, and tips if they are brown or limp. Cut okra into ¼-½ rounds. Drop pieces into a large bowl as you cut them. Sprinkle with ¼ teaspoon salt, ¼ cup cornmeal and ¼ cup flour. Mix well.

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Sometimes the natural moisture from the okra will be enough to turn the cornmeal and flour into a batter-like coating. If the mixture looks dry, add water, a few teaspoons at a time. The batter should stick to the okra pieces, mostly covering them. If you get too much water and the okra is sitting in runny batter, add about a tablespoon each of flour and cornmeal to thicken it.

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Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until oil is shimmering, but not smoking. Pour okra into hot pan, spreading it out into one even layer.

Cook, undisturbed, for 5-7 minutes, or until bottom is starting to brown. Carefully turn sections of the okra over, trying not to leave any of the coating on the pan. Add a teaspoon of oil, if the pan seems dry. Don’t add too much, or the okra will be greasy.

After another 5 minutes, the second side of the okra should be mostly browned. Gently stir the okra to break up some of the clumps. Some of the coating will fall off, which is fine. This makes little crispy bits that everyone will be fighting over when you serve it. Cook until most sides of the okra pieces are browned and crispy. Some of the larger pieces will never get crispy, but they will still be good.

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Serve hot, with additional salt to taste.

Fried okra is best right after it is cooked. Leftovers can be reheated in a dry skillet and they will be almost as good as they were the first time. I wouldn’t recommend heating leftovers in the microwave.

Spuds and Salad for Dinner

We aren’t vegetarians, but we do eat meatless meals several times a week. It has never been a planned thing, but lots of meals in our regular repertoire don’t focus on meat. If we didn’t eat so much cheese as part of our meatless meals, I could say we were doing it for health reasons, but I think the fat and cholesterol in the cheese probably are almost as bad as eating a hamburger. Of course, our veggie pasta meals, including Roasted Vegetable Pasta are, without a doubt, healthy. And when I think about it, I use ground sirloin and 100% whole wheat buns when we do have hamburgers, so they really aren’t that bad either.

Baked potatoes and salad are a great combination for summer evenings, since we can bake the potatoes in the toaster oven and avoid heating up the kitchen with the big oven. We also like to have spuds and salad on nights when we have to run after dinner, since there are minimal dishes.  And with three different people with three different food likes, this meal is easy to for each of us to adapt without having to make three different dinners.

 

There really isn’t a recipe with this, just general ideas. We have baked potatoes, topped with cheese and sometimes bacon. More adventurous souls can top them with whatever sounds good – from chili to broccoli and everything in between.

We all make our salads to our tastes too. Calvin skips it all together (lettuce is a green vegetable, you know), in favor of sliced apple or some other vegetable or fruit. Rich and I usually start with red leaf lettuce, since I like the texture better than green leaf, and I usually do the grocery shopping. I also think it makes a prettier salad than green leaf or romaine. Rich likes tomatoes, dried cranberries and usually no dressing on his. I like carrots, tomatoes, dried cranberries, a few nuts, balsamic vinegar and a tiny dash of olive oil on mine.

 

Throw some potatoes in the oven (or toaster oven), wash some lettuce and get dinner on the table in no time, vegetarian or otherwise.

Parmesan Crusted Zucchini Chips

Last night’s dinner was supposed to be tilapia cooked with squash and tomatoes, but I just wasn’t in the mood for that when it came time to make dinner. I decided on tuna sandwiches, but I needed something to round out the meal beyond potato chips (boring and not at all nutritious) or a salad (nothing was washed or chopped).

We had zucchini that I had bought for the tilapia, so I decided to do a variation on the zucchini “chips” we have been making for a few months. I have seen recipes for breading the zucchini before baking, but I absolutely didn’t want to take the time and effort to dip each slice of zucchini in egg and then bread crumbs. I decided on a Parmesan cheese crust. The results exceeded my expectations by a long shot. And the recipe couldn’t be easier, as long as you stay in the kitchen to avoid last minute burning (and I speak from experience – though I only lost a few slices).

Parmesan Crusted Zucchini Chips
From The Cook’s Life
Serves 2-3, easy to double

Try to make just what you are going to eat in one sitting. These lose all their crispness upon storage, but they are still tasty.

2-3 zucchini, depending on size, they cook down quite a bit (I used 2 for 3 servings)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, optional
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (not the powder in the green can)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a large baking sheet, or two smaller ones.

Slice zucchini into thin rounds, about 1/8-inch, or as thin as you can. The thinner your slices, the crispier they will get. In all reality, unless you have the knife skills of a chef, or use a food processor or mandolin, you will have slices of varying thicknesses. They will all be delicious, though some slices will be crispier than others.

Arrange the zucchini slices on the prepared baking sheet(s) in a single layer. You can overlap the edges a little, since they will shrink. If you end up with some paper-thin slices, double them up so they don’t burn. Try to keep the thinner slices toward the middle of the pan and the thicker ones at the edges.

Drizzle zucchini with olive oil, but don’t drown it. Sprinkle very lightly with salt, if using, and bake for 15 minutes.

Remove them from the oven and turn each slice over with tongs. This will seem tedious, but do it or the bottoms will burn. Sprinkle the slices with the grated cheese and return to the oven. You may not use all the cheese – save the leftovers for topping at the table.

Check the zucchini every five minutes or so, and remove the slices to a plate as they get brown. Don’t wait for all of them to get crispy or you will end up with some black and inedible pieces. After 15 minutes of additional cooking, all the slices should be soft, most of them will be crispy, and the cheese will be starting to brown and crisp. Arrange all the chips on a platter or plate, in one layer so their steam doesn’t make them soggy. Scrape all the crispy cheese off the baking sheet and add it to the platter. Serve immediately.

Download the recipe here.

Soup’s On

I know it is June and most people aren’t thinking of soup this time of year. We had a couple of really cool days last week where the thermometer struggled to reach 60, so I was thinking soup. And you can’t beat it for a quick, make-ahead meal. If you are currently sweltering where you are and can’t stand the idea of soup, file this one away for fall and check out a recipe for chicken salad or ice cream.

My parents were (very nicely!) coming over one day last week to help me fix the back screen door. It was one of those projects that had been hanging over our heads for months, since the wind caught the screen and ripped the door closer right off the door, taking part of the metal with it. After several months of having to remember to pull the door closed after us, we bought a new closer and asked my dad how to deal with the stripped out holes. Typical of my dad, he offered not only advice, but also the hands-on skills to get the job done. The least I could do was to provide lunch.

I wanted to have lunch all ready to eat when they arrived, but I didn’t want to have to fuss with it, or to worry about it burning if the door repair took longer than we planned. And I wanted more than sandwiches and chips. I settled on soup that I made early in the morning and kept in the crockpot on low until time for lunch. Seems like I have been seeing lentil recipes all over the place lately, so I bought a bag of lentils and used what I had in the fridge to make my own recipe.

Whether you need soup to warm your bones, pay back a favor, or just to fill your hungry belly, try this one, or another soup recipe and prepare yourself to be amazed at how easy homemade soup can be.

 

Easy Lentil Soup
from The Cook’s Life
Serves 6, easy to double

I used chicken broth, but vegetable broth would be delicious too. Make sure you like the taste of whatever broth you use.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large shallot or 1 small onion
3 cloves garlic
2 carrots
2 ribs celery
1-2 tomatoes
2 sun-dried tomatoes
3-4 cups broth (chicken or vegetable), low sodium preferred
¾ cup brown lentils, rinsed and drained
Pepper
Salt

Heat olive oil in a 3-quart saucepan over medium heat while you chop the shallot or onion. Add shallot to hot oil and stir briefly. Lower the heat to medium low and let cook while you mince the garlic and chop the carrots and celery into ¼ inch pieces. You don’t want big chunks in this soup, just small pieces of carrot and celery.

Add the garlic, carrots and celery to the pan and stir to combine. Raise the heat to medium and allow vegetables to cook while you chop the tomatoes. They will cook down, so you don’t have to really worry about getting even pieces. Dice the sun-dried tomatoes into ¼ inch pieces.

When the carrots and celery have softened somewhat, add the tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, broth, lentils and pepper to taste. Raise the heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to medium-low, so the soup is just simmering, not boiling furiously. Cover the pan and simmer for 30-40 minutes, or until the carrots, celery and lentils are tender. Taste the soup and add salt if necessary.

At this point you can transfer the soup to a crockpot set on low for a couple of hours (up to four), or you can cook on the stovetop for another 30 minutes or so. This will allow the lentils to thicken and enrich the broth a little more. I tasted mine after the lentils were first tender and it was missing something. But after about two hours in the crockpot it had a richer flavor and was so much better.

You could also make the recipe through sautéing the garlic, carrots and celery. Once the vegetables are somewhat softened, transfer them to a crockpot, add the tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, broth, lentils and pepper and cook on low for 4-6 hours, or until all the vegetables are tender and the broth is thickened somewhat. Taste for salt before serving.

Reheats well. Add a little water and reheat in the microwave or on the stove over low heat.

Download recipe here.

From leftovers to frittata in a flash

I have wanted to make a frittata for a long time, but have never actually done it. Thanks to a couple of recipes I have come across lately and The Great Leftover Challenge issued by Danny’s Kitchen on his blog, I came up with my own frittata recipe.

We had cheese fondue last Friday night for family movie night (Back to the Future, if you’re curious). We had extra Gruyere and Emmentaler left over. I started thinking about scrambled eggs and cheese, but we have that all the time and it isn’t exactly exciting. Then I thought of a frittata for something different. I was already planning on roasted vegetables with pasta for one dinner this week, so I planned to make extra veggies so I would have some left over for the frittata experiment.

I wish I had done a frittata sooner. It’s better and healthier than quiche. And as easy to make as scrambled eggs, but infinitely more interesting. Rich gave it two thumbs up and Calvin gave it three (not sure how that works!). So here it is – Roasted Vegetable Frittata with Cheese.

You can see the sections that reflect our various veggie preferences.

Roasted Vegetable Frittata with Cheese
from The Cook’s Life
Serves 4

The cheese makes this plenty salty enough, you can always add salt at the table if you think it needs it.

1 tablespoon olive oil
6 eggs
¼ cup milk
3 cloves roasted garlic, diced or mashed
1-2 cups grated sharp cheese (I used Emmentaler, Gruyere and sharp cheddar)
1-2 cups roasted vegetables (I used leftover zucchini, eggplant, carrots and garlic)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Start an ovenproof skillet heating over medium heat and add the olive oil. Beat the eggs with the milk, garlic and about a cup of cheese, and pour in the hot pan. Stir gently and cook until the eggs are starting to set and are about half-cooked. There should still be liquid eggs. Add the vegetables and stir briefly to mix them in a bit. Sprinkle the top with ½-1 cup cheese and place the skillet in the hot oven. Bake until the eggs are set and starting to puff and the cheese is starting to brown, 10-15 minutes. Serve immediately.

Download the recipe here.

Weeknight dinner: Pantry Pasta

It is nice to have a few recipes in your repertoire that you can whip up in a minute’s notice, without going to the store. They are great for busy days, evenings when you just can’t face another restaurant meal, or nights when it is pouring and 40 degrees and you don’t want to step foot outside to go to the store. We have been making variations on this pasta dish for years. In the summer this can showcase fresh veggies from the farmers market or your own garden. Be sure and check out the variations at the end of the recipe to adapt the pasta to your own family’s tastes. Add a salad, some steamed veggies and some garlic bread and you will have a dinner to rival a restaurant meal, right from your own kitchen. Be sure and post your variations in the comments section.

Pantry Pasta
Serves 4, or 2 with leftovers. Easy to double.
½ pound dried angel hair, spaghetti or other pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small shallot or onion, diced finely (optional)
1 clove garlic, diced fresh or from a jar
1 15-ounce can diced tomatoes, or petite diced tomatoes (unsalted or low-sodium preferred)
1-2 teaspoons dried basil, to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
2-4 tablespoons white wine, optional
Ricotta cheese, optional
Mozzarella cheese, diced into small cubes, optional
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

Fill a large pot with water and place over high heat until it comes to a full, rolling boil. While water is heating, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion or shallot, if using, and sauté until soft. Add garlic and sauté for a couple of minutes, until you can smell the garlic. Start pasta cooking when water boils, being sure to set a timer so you don’t forget about it. Drain the tomatoes if you want a drier dish, or use all the liquid if you want more of a sauce. Add the tomatoes. Add the basil, crushing it in your hand as you drop it in, to release more of the flavor. Add a dash of salt and a few grinds of pepper. Stir well and simmer for a few minutes. Add a few splashes of white wine, if desired. Drain the pasta when it is done and add it to the sauce. Toss with tongs. Add dollops of ricotta cheese or cubes of mozzarella, if desired. DON’T STIR after you add the cheese. Remove skillet from heat and let stand for several minutes to melt the cheese. Serve right from the skillet, adding grated Parmesan at the table.

Variations: Add other vegetables, after you sauté the garlic. You could add zucchini, green or red sweet peppers, eggplant, yellow squash or even carrots. Be sure to sauté them until they are done, so you aren’t eating crunchy vegetables, unless you like them that way.

Feel free to use fresh tomatoes, in season. We love to make this in the summer with garden tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant. But I was going for a pantry recipe here, hence the canned tomatoes.

If you want more protein, you could add a can of drained cannellini beans or garbanzo beans when you add the tomatoes. Or you can add a cup or two of cooked chicken or even cooked ground beef, if you want a heartier dish. Use your imagination and be sure to share your variations in the comments section.

Download the recipe here.