Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Oven-baked Chicken & Ricotta Sauce Pasta

My preferred method of cooking chicken thighs is to oven-bake them. It is one of those methods that is not time consuming and fairly easy to clean up. Typically my biggest challenge is to remember to remove the thighs from the freezer early enough for them to defrost.

Your primary ingredients for this dinner are boneless, chicken thighs (you can use thighs with bones but the cooking time will be longer); breadcrumbs; and grated parmesan cheese. I typically have a stash of unseasoned breadcrumbs because I make them from the scraps of bread I always seem to have lying around. Periodically I purchase breadcrumbs and prefer unseasoned because it allows you flexibility in your recipe.

Turn the oven up to 400 degrees and set up a cookie sheet (with a rim) with a bit of aluminum foil and spray it with olive oil spray. You could do without the aluminum foil but the clean up is more difficult and it ruins your cookie sheet faster. I rinse the thighs and set in a bowl with one or two eggs scrambled with water - enough to coat all the thighs in the bowl. In a pie plate, I put a bit more than a cup of breadcrumbs (for one package of thighs; approximately six pieces); 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese; and seasonings (typically salt, pepper and tarragon but it is really your choice. Oregano, thyme or even sage are all good options). I mix this well so that the thighs will be evenly coated with the breadcrumbs and seasonings.

One at a time, I remove the thighs from the egg mixture, let the liquid drain a bit from the meat, add to the breadcrumb mixture and gently coat each piece. Once the thigh is evenly coated, I arrange it on the prepared cookie sheet. It will take 20 to 30 minutes for the chicken to cook so I have time to figure out what I will make to go with the chicken. Sometimes I just use a package of macaroni and cheese, pesto pasta or oven-baked rice. I am in the mood for something different so I look at my ingredient options.

One of my favorite cookbooks is How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman (he has a blog on NY Times site I find this book essential for cooking when I have completely lost interest in my own standard meals. I have some ricotta cheese so I look in the index to see if there is a recipe that I can use that calls for this ingredient and will also go with the chicken thighs. Sure enough there is a pasta sauce recipe that calls for ricotta and peas (page 144 How to Cook Everything) - which I also have. The sauce requires a penne, ziti or rigatone paste (tube shape) and I happen to have half a pound of ziti. Since the sauce recipe calls for a pound of pasta, I will just cut it in half.

I start water boiling for the pasta, take a quick peek at the chicken thighs (they haven't even started warming up really) and start gathering my pasta sauce ingredients.

Set aside

  • 1/2 cup of frozen peas

In bowl large enough to add the pasta later, combine;

  • 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 tablespoon butter (optional but per the recipe it adds richness to the sauce)
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste
When the water starts boiling, I add the pasta and check on the chicken thighs. They have started sizzling a bit so I turn them over which means they are more than half-way done. The side originally laying on the tin foil should have gotten a bit brown and crispy. Pasta typically takes about 10 minutes to cook, especially one of these tube shapes. When it is about half done, I thrown in the peas with the pasta so that they can all cook together. (The recipe called to have the peas cooked in salted water. Since I am using frozen peas I would rather not use another pan and know that they will defrost while the pasta is finishing cooking.)

When it appears that the pasta is done (we prefer our pasta al dente so it is up to you), I turn off the heat and take a ladle of the pasta water and add it to the bowl with the ricotta cheese mixture. I whisk the ingredients for a few moments to get them nicely blended; it seems a bit thick so I add just a bit more pasta water (barely quarter of a ladle) and re-blend. When satisfied with the consistency, I drain the pasta and peas and add them to the bowl with the ricotta mixture and toss it all together.

My final touch to the plate is a quick, fresh tomato salad. I cut one medium tomato in chunks and toss with a bit of basil infused olive oil and balsamic vinegar and season with some salt and pepper. Voila! All together it took about an hour but well worth having dinner and leftovers for lunch.

20 Minute Meal

The weekends are at times a toss up as to whether we will eat at home or go out. I try to have something in the freezer or fridge that we can cook at the last minute if we decide to just stay home. Sunday night was the perfect example of this; we had spent our morning on our bicycle rides, followed by brunch and some errands. By the time we got home we were getting hungry but were not feeling up to going out for dinner so a quick meal was in order. However considering we both burned over 2,000 calories during our workout we also needed to eat something that packed enough nutrients to help us recover.

Thanks to a visit last Fall with another
Trader Joe's junkie we discovered their marinated fish in the freezer section. Trader Joe's has Ahi Tuna or Mahi Mahi marinated in oil, garlic, lemon, cilantro, red chili flake and black pepper. The marinade is very flavorful and to highlight it the best thing to do it serve it with a boiled grain and steamed vegetable. The beauty is that you can broil or pan-fry the fish and even frozen is doesn't take more than about 15 minutes.

I had defrosted the marinated Ahi Tuna steaks in the fridge for whatever night we decided to eat in. I decided to pan-fry them since the day is still warm and the oven being on will only heat up the house. I look around the cupboards for some quinoa grain, which is one of my new favorites; it is quick cooking (about 10 minutes) and high in protein, plus its mild, nutty flavor goes well with the marinade of this fish. Unfortunately, I seem to have run out and that is a bummer because I just went to buy all my bulks goods about a week ago so I am going to have to make an extra trip or go without for a while.

My next option is another Trader Joe's product - Harvest Grain Blend; this is a blend of couscous, orzo pasta, baby garbanzo beans and red quinoa that will also fit the bill of being quick and not a distraction to the marinade. My next option would have been plain pasta or even rice but my goal is to find the quickest option that has more of a nutrient kick. Following the instructions on the package, I boil some chicken broth (I happen to have a container open in the fridge and would rather use it before it goes bad). When it boils, I add a pat of butter and the Harvest Grain Blend, lower the heat, cover and set the timer for 10 minutes.

I have broccoli that I will steam so I set that up in the pan with water and turn the burner heat to medium. I have a tendency to forget to turn on my vegetables until everything else is about to be ready. This causes delay in eating and cold food that I hate so I find it is better to turn the vegetables on earlier, cook them at a lower temperature, and monitor them closely. If they happen to be ready a few minutes beforehand it is easy enough to drain and set them aside while you finish everything else.

Finally, I turn on the burner under my skillet and wait for the pan to heat up. Since I am cooking Ahi Tuna - which is typically served seared and raw in the middle - I have decided to not follow the instructions on time; it indicates 5-6 minutes of cooking time per side. I feel that the fish would be overcooked with so much cooking time so I decide to reduce it to a total of six minutes or three minutes per side.

When the pan is smoking a bit, I add the tuna steaks and pour on the marinade as well. Not the best idea really as the oil sputters and spatters all over my stovetop but I like the flavor of it and putting a lid over everything would ruin the browning I am striving for. I stir the Harvest Grain Blend because it has a tendency to stick and burn; the timer shows that I have a bet less than six minutes for it to cook. My broccoli is just starting to steam so everything should come together at the right time.

At about three minutes, I flip each steak - making sure I get the side in a bit of marinade for flavor. I stir the grain blend again and there is very little liquid left so I turn it off (it is a bit early but by to letting it sit there while the fish cooks and the broccoli steams it will finish cooking and not get overdone). With a bit over a minute left, the broccoli is done so I turn off the heat under the skillet with the fish and drain the water from the broccoli steamer. I then serve up our dinner that may only take 20 minutes to cook but we are so hungry it probably won't take more than five minutes to eat...

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Turkey Burgers and Futbol

Last week, Barcelona and Manchester United were playing a crucial Champions League final game (which we recorded) and it had been a long day at work so dinner needed to be quick and easy to eat in front of the TV. Fortunately I had turkey patties defrosting in the fridge and hamburger rolls in the freezer. Unfortunately, the patties are still a bit solid so I gently removed them from the packaging and seperated them using a metal spatula. I set the patties aside to defrost and turned to setting everything else up.

My next step is always to look into the vegetable bin to see what I have to round out any meal. I found onions and a small handful of mushrooms so I decide to grill those for the burgers. I also found some avocados which just sliced and scooped for a nice side. Finally, I set up each plate with a bit of lettuce for our burgers.

When grilling onions I like to add them to the pan as a full slice - eventually I break them up but I feel that this allows the onions to get a nice even browning before they start softening. So I gently peeled a medium onion, and sliced nice rounds of onions less than a quarter inch each. I rinsed the mushrooms and sliced them thinly as well. With everything prepped; dishes set up, buns waiting to be toasted, patties defrosting and the mushrooms and onions sliced, I set my grill pan - which is an oval, Le Crueset skillet - on the burner at medium and add a tablespoon of olive oil.

When the oil started to gently smoke, I carefully added the rounds of onions doing my best not to break them into rings. Once the onions were placed, I let them brown on one side for a few minutes, gently flipped them and let them brown on the other side for bit. As the second side of each onion round was browning, I added the mushrooms (and a bit more oil because the pan seems a bit dry). I gently sauteed the onions and when they seemed to be cooking nicely I mix them with the browned onion - now breaking the onions into single rings. I moved this mixture of onions and mushrooms to the side of the pan and let the pan heat up a bit before adding the turkey patties.

As the second side of each turkey patty is browning, I put the hamburger buns in the toaster and a low setting just to get the bread warm - not too crisp. When the buns are warm, I bring them to the plate and add a turkey patty to each bottom bun followed by a layer of nicely grilled onions and mushrooms. It is up to everyone to personalize their own from there.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Lamb on a Weeknight

I learned from my mother that Trader Joe's sells lamb tenders - a bit pricey at $12.99 per pound - but Luis doesn't like leg of lamb or lamb chops. The only lamb he likes is little lamb tender skewers we order when we go to Zarzuela's - our favorite Spanish restaurant.

My menu plan will stay simple to highlight the flavor of the lamb. I marinate the meat with a scant tablespoon of fresh rosemary, half a teaspoon of dried thyme, teaspoon of chopped garlic (one clove), salt, pepper and a tablespoon of lemon infused olive oil. It would be a hassle to set up the grill so I am going to broil the meat.

I will serve oven-roasted potatoes and steamed broccoli. I cut small white fresh potatoes in thin wedge slices and toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. I lay the potatoes on a cookie sheet (the kind with edges), cover with tin foil and place in a 425-degree oven. After 10 min, I remove the foil, use a spatula to flip the potatoes and return to the oven for another 10 min. I continue to do this until they are cooked well but in this case I am not crisping them.

Shortly after placing the potatoes in the oven, I place the lamb tenders under the broiler. I turn them over after 10 minutes and cook them until a meat thermometer in the thickest part reaches 125 degrees. The meat should be a bit red and slightly juicy.
In the final stages of the potatoes, I turn on my broccoli, which is in a pan with a steamer. I like my vegetables to be fresh and green looking but steamed enough to take the crunch out of it. It was a nice meal and cooking time was as little as 30 minutes; total meal preparation time was an hour.

Gourmand Pets

Yes, my belief in cooking from scratch and eating less processed foods extends to our cats. Our cats, Buena (background) and Zorro (foreground) have been with us for over 14 years. They certainly don't look or act their age - just like their humans - so we feel their diet is a huge part of that.

Additionally, many of our friends and family are allergic to most cats but don't typically react to ours. A homemade diet for pets can reduce dander (sloughed off skin), which is what people are sneezing at. Another bonus is that your pets coat will look beautiful and in our case very soft. Buena and Zorro are fairly social cats because people love to touch them.

I got turned onto cooking my own cat food after reading It's A Cat's Life by Anitra Frazer and subsequently purchasing The Natural Cat; her book on cat health and diet. I ended up modifying her diet somewhat accidentally when I had a to use some leftover Albondigas (Mexican meatballs in a garlic, tomato sauce). Our cats decided this tomato sauce was something that had been missing before and from then on they wouldn't eat their food if it wasn't seasoned that way.

A few years ago, I switched their diet to a raw meat version that my mother turned me onto from Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats. She was using the recipes in there for her Jack Russell puppy (also known as my brother Toby) who had numerous food allergies. My oldest cat, Rocky was suffering from the beginnings of renal failure and we didn't feel it would be quality of life to give him daily IV treatments. So I tried one of Dr. Pritcairn's special needs diets that addressed kidney health and fed it to all our cats. Rocky was a good two to three years older than Buena and Zorro but they were all geriatric by cat standards so it seemed that the change might be good for all of them.

I believe the change to a raw meat diet gave Rocky another three years of spoiled happiness. Sadly his kidneys finally failed him in September 2007 but even three weeks before he died he was looking young and fit; his purr as loud as the roar of a lion. Below is the adaptation of the original recipe - I find oatmeal more economical and easier to cook in bulk than the rice indicated in Dr. Pitcairn's recipe;

1 1/3 to 2 lbs. of ground, raw meat – beef, chicken, turkey *
1 small carrot or zucchini, grated
¼ cup of safflower, soy or corn oil
6 raw eggs
½ tsp of Salt
½ tsp sodium ascorbate (Vit C powder)**
1-15 oz can of Tomato Sauce
Onion, (less than ¼ of a whole one more like 1 TBSP)
2 cloves of garlic
4 cups quick oats oatmeal

In a large bowl, mix the raw meat, grated vegetable, oil, eggs, salt, Vit C. Set aside for the moment.

In the blender, put the tomato sauce, 1 can of water, onion and garlic. Add enough water to make up a total of 4 cups of liquid. Blend until smooth. Pour the tomato sauce into a pot, rinse the blender and add another 4 cups of water to the pot (total eight cups of liquid) and bring to a boil. When boiling, add the oatmeal cook for about 1 minute (5 minutes if you use old fashioned oats). Let stand for a few. Add cooked oatmeal to the meat mixture and mix well; the consistency should be of semi-soupy oatmeal. Separate the mixture into various small containers and freeze all but one.

* At some pet food stores ou can buy meat that is is ground with bones – which is necessary for the feline diet – otherwise you need to add bone meal to the vitamix below.
** They sell this Vit C powder in Trader Joes.

Cats Vitamix
1.5 c yeast powder
0.25 c kelp powder
1 c lecithin
2 c wheat bran
0.25 c bone meal (if not using meal ground with bones)

Add scant ½ tsp of this mixture to each meal.


I look in amazement at my shopping cart everytime I am checking out of Trader Joe's because I am only shopping for two people but my cart is about to overflow. Here I will admit that I have a problem - I am a pack rat but I have managed to eliminate this in every part of my life except the kitchen cabinets.

I hoard food because I hate running out of ingredients. Also I refuse to have anyone make a last minute trip to the grocery store - mostly because it would throw off the timing of my meal. I tend to have a backup supply for everything I use on a daily basis at the very least; honey, milk, yogurt, peanut butter, toast, Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Spread, Uncle Sam's Cereal, dried fruit, orange juice...

I did tell you I have a problem and you definitely should not think you have to emulate me in this respect. However, if you want to be able to throw meals together quickly either a small meal for yourself or your family or a larger dinner party with friends having a few staple ingredients will make this less expensive and less of a chore for you. The following are some core ingredients to keep on hand;


  • Butter
  • Breadcrumbs
  • Mustard (I keep Dijon and yellow but it really is a personal preference)
  • Ketchup
  • Better Than Boullion (chicken stock paste good for quick sauce and better tasting than the powder or cubed boullion)
  • Beer (it is great for cooking one of my staple dishes but I drink it occasionally as well)
  • Grated, parmesan/romano mix
  • Eggs
  • Milk (This might be optional for you personally - we use it everyday ourselves)
  • Yogurt (Again, this might be optional for you personally - we tend to eat this every morning but I also use it as a sour cream substitute)
  • Cheeses; (individually wrapped goat cheeses, a nice mild hard cheese, mozzarella, etc. We like to snack on them ourselves but they are also good to have in case people drop by)
  • Fresh vegetables (I tend to always have broccoli, zuchini, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and shallots on hand. I add others as needed for various recipes or specific meal ideas.)


  • Peas
  • Corn
  • Dorot Chopped Garlic
  • Dorot Chopped Basil
  • Selection of meats and fish (I keep a package of chicken thighs, chicken breasts, some fish, ground beef, ground turkey, etc.)
  • Frozen ready made things (soups that I have made, almost any Trader Joe's hors d'ouevres or quick pasta dishes, meatballs, etc.)
  • Frozen desserts (icecream, cookies, etc)
  • Frozen fruit


  • Olive Oil
  • Balsamic Vinegar
  • Rice Wine Vinegar
  • Soy Sauce
  • Canned Tomatoes
  • Canned Kidney Beans
  • Canned Garbanzo Beans
  • Dried beans, lentils, and "seven bean" mix (for soups)
  • Sugar
  • Flour
  • Cornmeal
  • Rice (white and brown long grain or even a basmati)
  • Quinoa (quick cooking grain that is high in protein)
  • Boullion
  • Chicken, Beef and/or Vegetable Stock (always good to have on hand for soups and sauces)
  • Lasagna noodles
  • Trader Joe's Starter Sauce
  • Instant coffee (not used very often but is a good way to flavor a quick beef stew or chili)
  • Cornstarch (always handy to thicken sauces)
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Baking Powder
  • Baking Soda
  • Vanilla
  • Dried Herbs (My most frequently used - chili powder, tarragon, oregano, sage, thyme)

Now if you don't already cook or bake; the above might be horrifyingly overwhelming to you so I suggest you gradually build up to this. If you start cooking and buy items like sugar, flour, herbs and spices in bulk - this will eventually be a very economical way to eat. I don't buy everything at one place either; the bulk of my groceries come from Trader Joe's because they have a lot of organic and natural products that suit my cooking and budget. They also have a whole of lot ready-made items that taste homemade and allow for quick, healthy meals. However, I go to Rainbow Grocery to buy my herbs, spices, baking ingredients and teas in bulk. Buying in bulk at any health food store is typically a much less expensive option. With herbs and spices you pay a lot for packaging so by buying in bulk you are just paying for exactly what you need.

Costco is carrying a lot more organic, canned goods so I tend to stock up on my tomatoes, kidney beans and garbanzo beans there but don't usually purchase much other food. Mostly because it is just too much for two people to use. Other than that I tend to purchase much of my fruit and vegetables at produce markets; sometimes my time just doesn't allow it but ultimately you tend to save money at these places and can pick and choose exactly what you want.


Cooking and eating at home with friends and family is a great way to bring a bit more soul to your house. On my blog I will share tips on food shopping; creating quick everyday meals; entertaining small or large groups of friends and family; and old standbys i.e. cookbooks, recipes, staple ingredients, etc.

Eating in a healthy, delicious way seems to be a trial for many of my friends and colleagues. For years now my coworkers and friends have expressed surprise that I always have leftovers for lunch and how easily I throw together a dinner party. I feel lucky that I was raised in a family that cooked everyday and loved throwing parties with lots of food because this seems to be normal for me.

I have several friends ask me to provide them with hints on grocery shopping and throwing together a quick meal. I don't typically use recipes unless it is a type of food I have never done before but I think cooking is more of an experience than a regimented series of steps. With everything, you should practice the steps at first but with experience you will know when you can take shortcuts or modify ingredients.

I hope that my experiences can help you in your kitchen. Cooking from home can be a healthy, economical choice but it will also add a bit of soul to your home.


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