Saturday, April 30, 2011

North African Meatballs

Supermarkets have come a long way from the time I began cooking in my early twenties. We can now buy everything from Chinese Five Spice Mix to Mexican chiles- fresh, dried and in Adobo sauce. We have purple potatoes, tomatillos and an International aisle that tempts us with Spanish condiments and exotic Thai spices. But lately I've been having a problem getting herbs and green leafy vegetables that look alive (edible) and entice me to buy them. Remember when I had the lemongrass meltdown and discovered Gourmet Garden Lemongrass Herb Blend? That was a life saver. Well I'm going through the same nonsence buying cilantro. For the third time in so many weeks I have yet to find a bunch of cilantro that has a healthy leaf on it and I've been avoiding one of my favorite herbs. So I once again went to the Gourmet Garden section of the produce department and found exactly what I was looking for.

Gourmet Garden Cilantro Herb Blend. This 4 oz squeeze bottle claims to contain 3 bunches of cilantro. That's 3 less trips to the market standing at the herb counter debating whether or not I should purchase inferior produce. I grabbed the tube, and it is everything the Lemongrass Blend is. A life saver.

Today I made North African Meatballs in an exotic tomato broth. I love the flavors and aromas of North Africa and this recipe has them all and is quick and simple. If I hadn't found the bottled cilantro I would have put off cooking this dish, because cilantro is a major flavor ingredient in the meatballs. Aside from the ground meat, these are the simple, easy to find ingredients I used to make the meatballs:


North African Meatballs

1 egg slightly beaten

2 T tomato paste (I use the tube- very cost effective)

3 T chopped cilantro (I used 3 T Gourmet Garden Cilantro Blend)

1 T fresh grated ginger

1 tsp ground cumin

pinch of cinnamon

1-1/2 slices Italian bread, coarsely ground in food processor or spice mill (if you're using store-bought crumbs, 1/2 cup will do)

kosher salt

ground black pepper

1 pound ground chicken (or any ground meat of your choice)


Pre heat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients except chicken until incorporated. This is the colorful, aromatic mixture that flavors the meatballs. Doesn't it look yummy?

Add the ground chicken and mix gently with your fingertips until all ingredients are combined. Form 16 meatballs and place on baking sheet prepared with cooking spray. Bake on center rack for 30 minutes.

While meatballs are cooking, prepare the sauce. The prep is easy.


Tomato Sauce

1 T canola oil

1/2 cup red onion chopped

3 cloves garlic (about 1 T) minced

1 lemon zested

1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives chopped

1/2 cup white wine

1/4 cup water

1 14 oz can diced tomatoes

1 tsp brown sugar

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

pinch of cinnamon

salt and ground black pepper


In large saucepan heat oil on low. Sweat onion for 5 minutes, covered. Add garlic and cook another 2 minutes. Now add lemon zest and olives. Cook two minutes more. Increase heat a bit and add white wine and deglaze the pan. It should begin to smell like a North African kitchen. Let wine reduce (uncovered) for 2 minutes. Stir in water, diced tomatoes in their juice, sugar, red pepper flakes, cinnamon, and salt and pepper. Return to simmer and add cooked meatballs. Lower heat, cover and cook meatballs in the sauce for 15 minutes.

How would you like to serve this this exotic dish? For an entree I'd be sure to include some rice and a vegetable- sauteed zucchini or yellow squash seems like it would be delish. Or omit the rice and serve couscous combined with cooked zucchini, onions and raisins. My favorite idea so far is to serve the meatballs (in their sauce) on grilled flat bread, slathered with a cucumber, scallion raita. And maybe a green salad with a lemon vinaigrette as a side. And I must admit, they've been pretty tasty as an appetizer with a little sour cream while I wrote this post.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Nutty for Oats, Bananas and Peanut Butter

I love my peanut butter granola bar recipe as is, but decided to take it a step further by adding 2 ripe bananas to the mix. The bananas add another dimension of goodness, not to mention their healthy benefits. Did you know bananas protect your heart, strengthen bones, and control blood pressure? Good stuff they are! So if you haven't tried the original granola bars yet, go directly to phase 2 and bake these good-for-you, tasty, easy to make little darlings. You won't be disappointed.

Peanut Butter and Banana Granola Bars

Vegetable cooking spray

1/2 stick unsalted butter

2 egg whites

1/2 cup peanut butter- I use creamy, but chunky would work fine

2 small ripe bananas, mashed

1/3 cup Splenda no calorie sweetner

1/4 cup honey

pinch of salt

2 cups old fashioned oats-1 cup ground in spice mill or food processor, the other cup left whole

1/3 cup mini chocolate chips

Pre heat oven to 350 degrees. Prep an 8 x 8 inch pan (I use disposable aluminum) with vegetable spray. Melt butter on stovetop and set aside to cool. In large mixing bowl beat egg whites until frothy. Add peanut butter, Splenda, bananas and honey to the frothy eggs and combine well. Here's a hint I always give- spray the measuring cups that you're using for the honey and the peanut butter with non-stick spray and the contents will slide right out. Next add the cooled butter. Combine everything and you're ready to add the oats. Using a rubber spatula or wooden spoon and some elbow grease, combine oats with all the other ingredients. When incorporated, add the mini chocolate chips. Pour batter (it's kind of thick) into prepared pan, smooth with spatula so it's evenly distributed and bake 25 minutes on middle rack until edges begin to brown. Remove from oven and let cool one hour. They really do need time to set up. Slice into any size pieces you like. I make 12 slices per batch, and as you can see, they disappear fast.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

An Appetizing Dinner

I love to make appetizers and small bites a complete meal. A few days ago I was craving PF Chang's chicken lettuce wraps and found many comparable recipes on line. But after perusing awhile, I opted for another approach that intrigued me. I combined a few different recipes I saw and came up with one of my own. And I must thank Kitchen M and Food and Wine for their inspiration. From their recipes I came up with Lemongrass Ginger Meatballs with Pickled Cucumbers in Bibb Lettuce Wraps. I loved Kitchen M's idea of using baking soda in the meatballs (no eggs or breadcrumbs) and Joyce (from Food and Wine) for serving her meatballs with Thai chili sauce and cucumber, wrapped neatly in Bibb lettuce leaves. From there I decided to pickle the cukes, add ginger to the meatballs and use ground beef instead of chicken or pork. Sometimes these brainstorms don't work, but this time- I believe it did.

Lemongrass Ginger Meatballs with Pickled Cucumbers in Bibb Lettuce Wraps

Pickled Cucumber and Onion

1 English cucumber

1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion

1 tsp salt

1-1/2 T sugar

1 T soy sauce

1/4 cup rice vinegar

1 tsp toasted sesame oil

Peel cucumber and remove seeds (I do this with a spoon). Cut into almost paper-thin slices. Slice onion into thin strips as well. Put slices into a bowl, add salt and toss. Set aside and make the vinaigrette. In a small jar, combine the rest of the ingredients and shake well to incorporate. Pour dressing over cucumber and onion mixture, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 30 minutes (or until you're ready to serve the meatballs).


1 pound ground beef

1 T Gourmet Garden Lemongrass Herb Blend

1 T grated fresh ginger

1 T grated red onion (this was a tearful experience and I will chop my onion finely next time)

1 T fish sauce

1 T soy sauce

2 tsp grated garlic

2 tsp baking powder

2 pinches of salt and a few grates of freshly ground black pepper

12 Bibb lettuce leaves

Sweet Red Chili Sauce (I use A Taste of Thai brand)

Pre heat oven to 375 degrees. In large bowl combine all ingredients except the beef, lettuce leaves and chili sauce. When you hear and see the baking powder reacting with the liquids add the ground beef and mix with your hands until all ingredients are combined. Form into 12 1-1/2 inch balls and place on parchment lined baking sheet. Bake on middle rack for 22 minutes. To each of 12 lettuce leaves, place a meatball and drizzle with chili sauce.

Add a tablespoon or two of cucumber mixture, fold lettuce, pick up the bundle and eat with your hands. Or use a knife and fork because it is kind of messy.

If you're serving this as an appetizer or at a cocktail party, I'd recommend 2 per person. If you're making a meal of this, well... I ate 3 and could have gone for another.

Afterthoughts: This was a very tasty meal. Did you notice I didn't put a spicy (hot) ingredient in either the meatballs or the pickles? I purposefully didn't because I wanted the lemongrass and ginger to stand out, and they did. And I wasn't sure if the pickles could take any heat. But I must admit, I missed the spicy bite I'm used to getting in an Asian lettuce wrap, and will have to figure out a way to please myself and some of my friends who have less tolerance for heat than I do. I'll be working on that and will keep you posted. I also think the next time I make this I'll sprinkle some toasted sesame seeds on top of the meatballs for some more texture and visual excitement.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring Cleaning

With the weather changing here so quickly I've been busy getting last years cheesy spring wardrobe in order. But I also had an abundance of other cheesy things (ricotta and parmesan in my fridge) that needed my attention as well. My plan was to make an eggplant ricotta parmesan casserole. I made it this morning and was very disappointed with the results. The eggplant had NO taste, was tough to chew, and seemed like it wasn't cooked. Ever have that problem? But being the trooper that I am, and still having a half cup of ricotta and some ground chicken floating around, I perused the internet and found a recipe from Rachael Ray for ricotta/parmesan meatballs. I changed her recipe slightly, due to my tastebuds not enjoying fennel seeds and rosemary, but the basic recipe is Rachael's. She recommends cooking the meatballs at 450 degrees for 18 minutes, which I'd never done before. But I followed her directions and they came out fine. Delicious in fact. I think the high temp/short cooking time is a 30 minute meal thing. Good to know. Anyway, when the meatballs were done, I added them to a simple vegetable soup I concocted. Yummy and satisfying.

Ricotta Parmesan Meatballs

1 pound ground chicken

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

1/4 tsp kosher salt

3 cloves garlic grated

1 tsp red pepper flakes

1/2 cup ricotta cheese

1/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese (Rachael recommends grated, but I had shredded)

1 large egg slightly beaten

3/4 cup bread crumbs (I used 1-1/2 slices of ciabatta bread ground in my spice mill, but store bought would be fine)

To make the meatballs: Pre heat oven to 450 degrees. In large bowl combine all ingredients except the ground chicken. When everything is incorporated, add the chicken and combine gently with your fingertips. Form mixture into 12 to 14 two inch balls and place on baking sheet that has been misted with cooking spray. Coat tops of meatballs with spray as well. Bake 18 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Spaghetti Vegetable Soup

2 tsp extra virgin olive oil

2 carrots diced

2 stalks of celery diced

3/4 cup onion diced

2 bay leaves (I use dried)

1/2 tsp salt

1/8 tsp pepper

1/2 tsp crushed red pepper (Debbie- if you're thinking of making this, use 1/4 tsp or omit completely)

2 cans (14.5 oz each) low fat, low sodium chicken broth

1 can (14.5 oz) water

1/2 cup frozen peas

4 oz uncooked spaghetti

1/4 cup parmesan for topping soup

To make the soup: In large pot, on low heat, add olive oil, carrots, celery, onion, bay leaves, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Stir to combine. Cover pot and sweat vegetables until onions are translucent (7-8 minutes). While vegetables are cooking, boil water to cook the spaghetti. Cook pasta according to package directions. Back to the soup pot...When vegetables are cooked, add broth and water and bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer 5 minutes. Add the peas, cook 3 minutes and soup is ready.

Into 4 soup bowls add to each a portion (approximately 1 ounce) of spaghetti, 3 meatballs and soup. Top each with a tablespoon parmesan cheese. And if you've got some ciabatta bread on hand, it's a great accompaniment.

Monday, April 4, 2011

La La La Lasagna

This dish will surely give you something to sing about. Once a year I make lasagna. Sometimes I make it with a bechemel sauce, sometimes with a combo of bechemel and tomato sauce and like my most recent venture, with a tomato chicken sausage sauce. The tomato chicken sauce is less taxing than the others and the results always seem to be perfect. Lasagna is a labor of love and you need to set aside a good amount of time to put the dish together, bake it and let it cool a bit before you dive in. So with Dean Martin and Al Martino playing in the background I prepared my ingredient list and began putting this heavenly dish together. There are 3 components that make up my lasagna: the noodles, the meat/tomato sauce and the ricotta cheese mixture.

Chicken Sausage Lasagna

12 lasagna noodles- I use Dreamfields for almost all my pasta dishes. They're low carb and cook up beautifully. Plus they taste like the real thing, which they are

2 tsp canola oil, divided

5 large sweet chicken sausages with casings left on

1/2 cup chopped onions

1/2 cup chopped green pepper

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp (or more if you like lotsa heat) crushed red pepper flakes

1 large jar Classico tomato/basil tomato sauce (about 24 oz- I can't find another one in my cupboard so I can't give you the exact weight of the jar- you'll figure it out)

1 8 oz can tomato sauce

1 pound part skim ricotta cheese

2 large eggs lightly beaten

1/2 cup shredded Romano Pecorino cheese (Parmesan works fine too)

1/2 cup low fat shredded mozzarella cheese

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Another 1/2 cup low fat shredded mozzarella cheese for topping the lasagna

To make the sauce: In large saucepan, on medium low, add the canola oil. Once it's warm add the sausages and brown on all sides (10-15 minutes). Remove from the pan, drain on paper towels and let cool. Set aside. Wipe out the sausage pan, add the remaining canola oil and then the onions and green peppers. Once they've gotten used to the canola bath, add salt, pepper and crushed red pepper flakes. Cook on low until vegetables have softened. Meanwhile, slice sausages into 1/4 inch rounds. REMEMBER they're not completely cooked yet, so don't go popping any into your mouth. When the onions and peppers are soft add the Classico sauce and 1/2 the can of tomato sauce. Bring to a low simmer and add the semi-cooked sausages. Cook covered for 10-15 minutes or as long as it takes to make the cheese mixture.

To make the cheese mixture: Combine all ingredients from ricotta through black pepper. Set aside.

While making the cheese mixture, fill a large soup/stew pot with water and bring to a boil. Add salt (optional) to flavor the water and add lasagna noodles. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often to ensure the noodles don't stick to one another. Pour noodles into a colander and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking.

I then lay the wet noodles on a clean kitchen towel and allow them to dry a little.

Now it's time to assemble the dish: Pre heat oven to 375 degrees. In a 13 x 9 x 2.5 inch dish (I used glass, but stainless is just fine) place the remaining 1/2 can of tomato sauce and some of the sauce from the sausage mixture, just to cover the bottom of the pan. Lay 4 lasagna noodles on top of the sauce, overlapping them at the edges. Take half the cheese mixture and spread evenly over the noodles. Top with 1/3 of the sausage tomato mixture. The first layer is done.

Continue with another layer of 4 noodles, the rest of the cheese mixture and 1/3 more of the sausage tomato mixture. Second layer is done. Now, one more layer of noodles to go. Top with the rest of the sausage tomato mixture and sprinkle 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese on top of the whole shebang and you're ready to put this baby in the oven. Cover or tent lightly with aluminum foil and bake 35 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 20 minutes. Take out of the oven and let stand for 15 minutes. This resting period allows the lasagna to "set up" and not fall apart when you slice it. Slice into 8 large pieces and let those you're sharing with sing your praises. And if you're not feeding an army, sing your own praises and know that the individual portions freeze well and reheat beautifully in the microwave.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Ciabatta Garlic Bread

Whenever I want a new recipe, I go to Ina Garten and find exactly what I'm looking for. I recently had a hankering for garlic bread, took a tip from Ina and made the best garlic bread I've EVER had. It's a must try. And it's quick and simple.

Ina included herbs in her recipe (1/4 cup each chopped flat leaf parsley and oregano). I omitted them and added cheese. And she used both butter and olive oil, a great flavor combination. Plus she has a great way to cook the garlic without burning it. Here's the olive oil/garlic side of the bread before it's baked.

Ciabatta Garlic Bread with Cheese

Inspired by Ina Garten

6 large garlic cloves

1/2 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/2 cup olive oil

1 loaf ciabatta bread (1 pound)

2 T unsalted butter

2 T shredded Romano Pecorino cheese (Parmesan would work fine)


Pre heat oven to 350 degrees.

Mince garlic and add salt. With a large chef's knife, mash the garlic and salt to make a paste. This will take a bit of time, but worth the effort. Add black pepper and combine.

Heat olive oil in medium size saucepan. Add garlic paste and immediately remove the pan from heat.

Slice ciabatta in half horizontally. Spread butter on one half of the loaf and garlic mixture on the other half. Sprinkle with cheese. Put halves together. Wrap bread in aluminum foil. Place in oven and bake 7-8 minutes. Open foil and continue baking 10 more minutes. Slice and serve. Yummiest bread EVER!