Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Stuffed Dates

We broke a record here in Minneapolis this month: the first March in recorded history in which it has not snowed. In fact, it seems that we might be experiencing a mini heat wave. And I'm thrilled! (Implications of global warming apart.)

So spring is here with with a bang and with it opportunities or excuses - depending on how you look at it- to get together with friends and indulge in some refreshing spring dishes. Spring time recipes tend to be easy to prepare, and with an emphasis on freshness and simplicity. And with all this good weather to be enjoyed, I'm a fan of simple cooking because it translates into less time indoors and more time in the sun.

I made this recipe for a small dinner party last weekend. It is relatively simple and refrigerates well, so can be made the night before. Just remember to thaw for twenty to thirty minutes before serving because refrigerated dates tend to be too chewy for my liking.

Stuffed Dated with Goat Cheese and Chives
Serves 7 to 8

2 lb fresh medjool dates
1 1/2 cup plain goat cheese
2 tbsp chopped chives

1. Add chives to the goat cheese and combine well.
2. Using a paring knife, make a slit from the top of each date down to the other end, only on one side, to form a pocket. Remove and discard the pit.
3. Fill each date with 1 teaspoon of the cheese-chive mixture. Refrigerate until read to serve.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Simple Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus

Asparagus is one of the first vegetables available in spring. Crisp, mellow, and juicy. It makes a good side dish for easter brunch/lunch/dinner. Simply drizzle with olive oil, seaon with salt and pepper, and roast. But add a little prosciutto, and asparagus becomes everyone's favorite vegetable. In this recipe, I omitted any salt because the prosciutto is already considerably salty.

Simple Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus
Serves 4 to 5

1 bundle fresh asparagus
1 lb prosciutto
2 tbsp olive oil

1. Set oven to 450 degrees F.
2. Cut each slice of prosciutto in half, length-wise. Wrap one half slice of prosciutto around the middle of each asparagus spear, leaving one to two inches on both ends unwrapped. Drizzle with olive oil and spread evenly on a baking dish. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes, until the asparagus is tender.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chicken Florentine with Sun-dried Tomatoes

With five percent of fat per serving, the breast is the leanest part of a chicken, and a good option for lean protein. That being so, it has a tendency to dry out quickly during cooking.

Stuffed chicken florentine is one dish that defeats this an extent. Because it is stuffed with spinach, which is innately about ninety percent water, the interior stays moist even after pan searing and cooking in a four hundred degree oven for over thirty minutes. Of course, given enough time and heat, all of this moisture can dry off so be careful not to over-cook. Take care, also, to sear the meat evenly on all sides before finishing off in the oven. This has a two fold purpose: good searing means more flavor, and pre-searing means less cooking time in the oven.

I've used frozen spinach here but you can substitute with fresh if available. If using frozen, be sure to thaw it completely and squeeze as much of the liquid out as possible. Don't worry, there will still be sufficient moisture for the stuffing. If using fresh spinach however, coarsely chop before adding to the onions. Also, cook for an extra few minutes to allow most of the the water that would have collected in the skillet to evaporate.*

This recipe can be somewhat time consuming but the results are well worth it. An effective approach is to prepare the stuffing before flattening the breasts into cutlets. Alternatively, the stuffing can be made up to a week in advance and frozen until ready to use.

Chicken Florentine with Sun-dried Tomatoes
Serves 4

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1/2 cup diced onion
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 spring fresh thyme
1/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes, reconstituted with hot water, drained, and minced
1 package frozen, chopped spinach (about 6 cups fresh spinach*)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/3 cup plain bread crumbs
1/2 cup grate parmigiano reggiano
1 egg
3 tbsp vegetable oil
salt and pepper to season

1. To prepare stuffing: Add 1 tablespoon of oil to a heated skillet, and saute the onion and garlic with the thyme. Cook until the onions have slightly browned, about three minutes. Stir in the sun-dried tomatoes and cook for another three to five minutes. Add the spinach, stir to combine. Remove from the heat and stir in the parsley, bread crumbs, cheese, and egg. Combine thoroughly and set aside until ready to stuff the chicken.
2. Place one chicken breast on a cutting board, and carefully cut along the side, cutting through the middle, stopping half an inch before the knife goes through the other side, essentially butterflying the breast. Now, place the butterflied breast between two pieces of plastic wrap and flatten with a mallet to an even thickness, less than a 1/4 inch throughout. Repeat with the remaining chicken breasts.
3. To stuff chicken breast: Place one chicken cutlet on a flat surface and spread a quarter of the spinach mixture evenly unto the cutlet. Roll up until you end with the seam side facing down. Using pieces of kitchen twine, tie a secure knot at three places along the roll: the middle, upper half, and lower half. Season evenly with salt and pepper.
4. Heat a skillet over medium heat, and add 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil. Brown the chicken on all sides , about three to four minutes per side. Finish cooking in a 400 degree F oven for 30 to 40 minutes until chicken is no longer pink inside or an instant read thermometer registers 160 degrees F. Serve whole or in slices.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Whole Wheat Pasta with Sweet Peppers and Goat Cheese

There are days when nothing will do but a bowl of pasta. Days like those after a great run or after a long day studying or working with little time to prepare a huge meal. Or for no reason at all but a craving for a big helping of lasagna/ spaghetti / fettucini. I can almost hear the collective questioning: Pasta, you say? Isn't pasta high in calories and carbs? Yes, but that doesn't matter on these days. All that matters is indulging in something comforting and tasty.
For me, it is easy to over-indulge in any kind of pasta but I never worry too much because, at home, most of my pasta dishes are in essence conveyors of vegetables. I use it as an opportunity to get extra servings of vegetables. And whole wheat pasta are always my first choice. Not only because it is more wholesome and a low gylcemic food but simply because the earthy taste and chewiness are what I'm after.

Whole Wheat Pasta with Sweet Peppers and Goat Cheese
Serves 2

4 oz whole wheat pasta *
1 1/2 to 2 lbs sweet peppers, sliced
1/4 cup diced onion
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 tsp crushed pepper flakes
1 cup plain goat cheese
1/4 lb pancetta or bacon**

1. Bring 4 to 5 cups of water to boil for pasta. Add two teaspoons of salt and the pasta. Return to a boil and cook for 10 to 12 minutes, or according to the directions on the package. Drain. Set aside.
2. While pasta is cooking, saute the peppers together with the onion, garlic, and rosemary over medium heat for 10 minutes. You want the peppers slightly softened but not macerated. Stir in the crushed pepper, and season with salt. Add the cooked pasta and goat cheese. Toss well and serve with crumbled bits of pancetta or bacon.

* Whole wheat spaghetti or penne is suggested.
** Cooking the pancetta or bacon in the oven is a great way to get rid of excess fat that would otherwise have accumulated in a skillet. Set the oven to 400 degrees F, place a rack on a baking sheet and lay the slices of cured meat flat on the rack. Bake for 10 and 15 minutes until brown and crispy.