Monthly Archives: April 2016

Smiles of a Spring Evening and Grilled Vegetable Stacks

In spite of occasional days of rain and cold, Spring is finally settling into the Midwest. Trees once bare are now laden with blossoms or sprouting leaves. The days are longer and on some days sitting out on the balcony is a downright pleasure. This all makes grilling out much more enjoyable. We are ardent year round grillers, but it is nice to be able to actually attend to it without having to put on a winter coat.

It was just such a recent (Meatless) Monday night that gave life to these vegetable stacks. The weather was perfect for a grill meal that needed a little attention but still allowed time to sip a glass of wine. It was also necessary to have time to admire the beauty of our park like courtyard complete with the sounds of children chasing balls and bubbles. A light breeze sent the blossom scents wafting through the air and made for an almost perfect evening.012

While this does qualify as a quick weeknight supper, there is a bit of earlier in the day prep involved. The vegetables need to be cleaned, cut, and marinated. I started with Portobello mushrooms.004 These were an interesting size, labeled “Mini” Portobello, they were more like “Giant” Crimini. Whatever the nomenclature, they were the perfect size to create a base for the veggie stacks once the were stripped of their gills and given a little wipe down. The rest of the veggies were cut in thick chunks to fit nicely in the caps. Everything got  popped into zip top bags and marinated in a Balsamic Vinaigrette. Any marinade of your choosing will be perfect.007

When the time came to grill , I reached for my trusty Grill Mat. This is possibly one of the greatest inventions of the millennium. This mat allows you to grill the gooiest marinated food, the smallest pieces of anything edible, and anything that is likely to stick, come apart, or fall through. While possessing all the above attributes, what I find the most amazing is that food still comes out tasting smokey and for lack of a better word, grilled.014 There is an infomercial that offers these, but I know that mine came from a Groupon offer (thank you Loren) that is unfortunately no longer available. If you don’t have these mats, I would strongly recommend a grill pan.

I started with the mushrooms which take the longest time. Once they were almost done I moved them to the top rack. They finished cooking and the mushroom drippings found their way onto the vegetables below. This was a very good thing. Put the veggies on the grill in order from the longest cooking time to the shortest.017This is where the time to sip wine and tend to the grill come into the picture. The veggies seem to require almost constant moving, turning, and otherwise attending too, but on a beautiful spring evening it’s a perfect excuse to spend time outside. You may notice that the onions are sporting the latest in toothpick accessories. This isn’t just for show, the picks help keep the onions together, the better for them to be a stable layer in the stack. Just remember to take them out before assembling.

Once everything was perfect, I took them inside and began the assembly. While this was happening, I put the tomatoes on the grill. Opt for Roma Tomatoes or any other firm fleshy variety. These will hold together and keep their tomato integrity.023Toothpicks again came to the rescue again. Once the stacks were assembled complete with their lovely mozzarella hats, I used the picks to give them and me an extra level of security.028  It was worth the effort and use of wood, not a single stack was lost. They were beautiful and ever so tasty.  030

Grilled Vegetable Stacks
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Servings
4
Servings
4
Grilled Vegetable Stacks
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Servings
4
Servings
4
Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Remove the stems from the mushrooms. Use a spoon to scrape the gills out of each mushroom. Wipe them with a damp paper towel and place them in a gallon zip top bag.
  2. Place the remaining vegetables in another zip top bag. Try to lay them flat.
  3. Divide the Balsamic dressing between the two bags. Seal the bags and turn them a couple of times to distribute the dressing. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.
  4. On a grill set at high heat and using a grill mat or pan, cook the mushrooms, turning as needed until they are somewhat soft. If you have a second rack on your grill move them to it top side up.
  5. Add the vegetables to the grill. Start with the onions. It is helpful to use toothpicks to hold the slices together.
  6. Once the onions begin to brown, add the squashes. Continue to cook the vegetables turning occasionally until they are beginning to soften and are browning.
  7. Remove all the vegetables and the mushrooms from the grill. Add the tomatoes. These will cook while you assemble the stacks. Enlist a lovely/handsome assistant to keep an eye on them while you do this.
  8. Assemble the stack as follows: Mushroom, onion slice (don't forget to remove the toothpicks), zucchini slice, pepper chunks, and yellow squash slice. You will have some squash slices left over, do with them as you wish, but they do fill out the plate nicely.
  9. Remove the tomatoes from the grill, and add them to the stack. Top each stack with a slice of the mozzarella.
  10. Anchor each stack with a toothpick. Trust me, don't skip this step. Return the stacks to the grill and cook, covered until the cheese begins to melt.
  11. When everything looks beautiful, bring the stacks in and remove the toothpicks. Serve with a nice salad and the remaining squash slices.
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As always, feel free to use any vegetables that you like. Think of the possibilities when the Farmer’s Markets really get rolling. A light and delicious dinner will be stacked in your favor.

Italian Cauliflower Mac & Cheese for All Seasons

While spring is officially here, the weather has been far from Springlike. Call it confused, call it crazy, but any day that gives you snow, sleet and rain along with a touch of sun, but temperature wise is still in the 30’s is a good reason to make a comfort food casserole that warms the heart and the kitchen. While I know that things will get better (in fact, they are already) Mac & cheese has no season.

IMG_1608This started with equal parts of pasta and cauliflower. The “Gigli” looked a bit like the cauliflower and the combination lightened the carb load a bit. This could also be a great disguise for vegetables if that is an issue in your family. Any way, the pasta cooked to almost al dente before I added the cauliflower. I drained it all and set it aside.IMG_1618

I chopped two Italian Chicken Sausage links and added them to a hot pan. (I wanted a little of that crunchy meat taste, but you could easily leave it out.)  Beautifully browned, they sat on the sidelines for a bit. Then a swirl of olive oil followed by some garlic, onion, and red bell pepper went into the pan. I let this get golden and used a bit of chicken stock to de-glaze the pan. Flour went in and a stock/oil roux came together. I used Fat Free Half and Half and more chicken stock to create the sauce.

tjs-toscano I combined equal parts of Black Pepper Toscano ( this wonderfully asiago cheesecreamy Parmesan cheese has made several appearances in Mama D’s recipes) and Olive Oil  Rosemary Asiago cheeses (Another Mama D favorite with just the right sharpness and plenty of rosemary kick). Both of these cheeses come from Trader Joe’s, but any sharp Italian cheese would work. Emphasis on the “sharp”…a little goes a long way to create big flavor in a small package. I used about 1/2 cup shredded of each cheese and the flavor was more than satisfying.IMG_1616

All the players came together in a baking dish.  It baked covered for about 20 minutes, then I removed the foil and added breadcrumb topping and let it bake a bit more before cranking the oven to “Broil” and letting the golden magic happen.IMG_1629

It was very pretty, but that was nothing compared to how it tasted. A few sautéed grape tomatoes were the only addition to this “enlightened” meal. IMG_1634 It had the creaminess of a full dairy cheese sauce, but the chicken stock lowered the fat content nicely. While it wasn’t completely guilt free, it was darn close. This could easily serve six people, but in reality it is more like four servings, but even at that it still won’t totally break the fat and calorie bank.

Italian Cauliflower Mac & Cheese
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Servings
6
Servings
6
Italian Cauliflower Mac & Cheese
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Servings
6
Servings
6
Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Cook pasta in boiling salted water until not quite "al dente". Add the cauliflower and bring back to a boil. Drain and rinse, then set aside.
  2. Heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Coat lightly with cooking spray and add the sausage. Cook the sausage until it is golden brown, stirring frequently. Remove the sausage from the pan and set it aside.
  3. Add the olive oil to the pan. Add the onion, garlic, and bell pepper. Cook stirring often until everything is soft and fragrant. Add 1/4 cup of the chicken stock to the pan. Stir to loosen any brown bits. Add the flour and cook and stir for 2 minutes.
  4. Add the remaining stock stirring until smooth. Stir in Half & Half and cook until the mixture thickens and is bubbly. Remove the pan from the heat and add in the grated cheese, stirring until it melts.
  5. Coat a rectangular baking dish with cooking spray. Combine the pasta, cauliflower, sausage, and cheese sauce in the pan. cover the pan with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
  6. Combine the melted butter, bread crumbs, and Parmesan. Remove the foil and top the casserole with the crumb mixture. Return to the oven for another 10 minutes. Turn oven to broil and allow the topping to brown.
  7. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving.
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As I get ready to post this, it feels like Spring is truly here. Let’s hope that it plans on staying for awhile.

Signs of Spring and Springtime Ham Soup

When I think of soup from a ham bone, visions of thick and hearty Split Pea or Lentil Soup come to mind. There is nothing quite as comforting as losing oneself in the smokey richness that is found in a ham based legume soup.  It’s the perfect partner for a cold wintry night. Winter is gone now (fingers and toes crossed) and Spring is in the air.

Like many, I was left with a ham bone from Easter Dinner (Thanks Jordan & Kelly it was wonderful). I went to the pantry and reached for the lentils, then thought better of it. As tasty as the result would be, the sun coming in the window and the trees beginning to turn green led my inspiration in another direction. Why not make Ham Broth out of the bone and use it as the base to make a lighter, brighter soup. And that’s just what I did.

The mirepoix was leeks, garlic, and carrots. Olive oil made its appearance in the pan to get everything sweating in the best way possible. The broth was added along with more than a few thyme sprigs and everyone took a nice long simmer.IMG_1577

I know that sweet potatoes and corn don’t sound very spring-like, but they are the colors of spring (and often part of Easter Dinner). They were a colorful and tasty addition to this soup. I also added some haricot vert and snow peas. IMG_1581

IMG_1585It wouldn’t be ham soup with out ham so I added a generous cup of the ham bone trimmings. This meat is a little heartier and stands up to the long simmer that soup takes. Speaking of long simmering soup, the haricot vert and snow peas take only minutes to cook and can quickly turn dull, so I added them at the end. I actually blanched them and added them to the bowls before I ladled in the soup. The piping hot soup warmed them up and the crunch they gave to the soup was a bonus in flavor and texture. This soup was the perfect blend of  light yet filling and comforting. Adding a grilled cheese sandwich to the meal would make it a perfect Supper.IMG_1589

Springtime Ham Soup
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Servings
4
Servings
4
Springtime Ham Soup
Print Recipe
Servings
4
Servings
4
Ingredients
Servings:
Instructions
  1. Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the leeks carrots, and garlic tossing to coat them with the oil. Add a pinch of salt and cover the pot. Allow the vegetables to sweat for 5 - 7 minutes.
  2. Add the Ham Broth and the thyme leaves to the pot. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer covered for 20 - 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. At this point you can remove the thyme sprigs as the leaves have probably fallen off and the sprigs have done their flavor magic. Add the sweet potatoes and corn and simmer 20 minutes more or until the sweet potatoes are tender.
  4. While the soup is simmering, blanch the snow peas and haricot vert. Put them in boiling water briefly, then remove them to a bowl of ice water. When they are cold drain them well. This will leave them tender crisp and bright green. Set them aside.
  5. When the soup is done, taste it and add salt and pepper as needed. Place a few haricot vert and snow peas into each soup bowl. Ladle the soup into the bowls and serve.
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Soup is wonderful any time of year. With the new season’s vegetables coming in, take advantage of them and create your own soup pot of love.