Chinese New Year - Crispy Orange Beef

Today is Chinese New Year, and it's the Year of the Ox. When I was in grammar school, a Chinese family moved into our neighborhood. As I spent afternoons teaching their Ya-ya (the grandfather) English, they taught me about their culture, sparking a life-long appreciation and fascination. I have taken some Chinese brushpainting classes and dabble in Chinese calligraphy now and again, but there's something I really love about being able to celebrate the New Year once again, with food. In the past, I've thrown small gatherings, or at least have broken out my blue-and-white porcelain dinnerware on which to serve my Asian creations, but this year the New Year is being celebrated on a Monday, during my school's midterm exams, so we're going low-key. Oranges are China's most plentiful fruit, and tradition says that dishes made with them represent wealth and good fortune. Since we all could use a little bit of that, I decided to make Crispy Orange Beef. Although it was a bit labor-intensive for a weeknight, it turned out well. Using a small portion of beef and lots of vegetables is how we kept it relatively light. The crispy, savory beef and fresh vegetables got a real boost from the sweet yet mildly spicy sauce. We suggest serving it with steamed rice. Here's the recipe, for two as usual. Happy New Year!


1/2 lb. top sirloin beef, still slightly frozen if possible
1/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup champagne vinegar (white wine vinegar or rice wine vinegar would work too)
1/2 cup orange juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon dried orange peel
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 cup canola oil (for frying)
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
1 tablespoon (2-3 cloves) minced garlic
1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon
Sriracha sauce
3 cups vegetables (we used broccoli and snap peas)

Slice the beef into thin strips and lay them out in a single layer over paper towels. Allow them to finish thawing and to dry for about a half hour. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix together the sugar, vinegar, orange peel, orange juice, salt and soy sauce and set the mixture aside. Coat the beef slices with cornstarch and put the beef in the refrigerator for about 10 minutes so the coating will stick. In the meantime, steam your vegetables. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat. Fry the beef in the hot oil in small batches until the beef is crispy and brown. Be careful not to cook the beef too long, especially if it's sliced nice and thin. When all the beef has been fried, set it aside and get rid of all but a tablespoon of the frying oil. To the wok, add the ginger, garlic, sriracha and sesame oil and cook it briefly, taking care not to burn the garlic. The add the orange juice mixture to the wok, bring it to a boil and let it cook until it thickens and looks syrupy, about six minutes. Add the beef and vegetables to the wok and stir everything so it is coated with the sauce. Serve with steamed rice.


Roasted Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Chris and I just love roasted garlic mashed potatoes. They used to be my go-to side dish whenever we ate out until one day I realized how easy they are to make at home, and now we have them often. In the past, I've usually just roasted a head of garlic (see below), pinched out a bunch of the cloves, and mashed them up with my cooked potatoes, 1/2 stick of butter, 1/4 cup of milk, and salt and pepper. These days, I'm substituting Olivio (butter mixed with olive oil) for the butter, and fat-free milk for the milk, but the flavor of the roasted garlic more than makes up for any calorie-cutting. Here's my tip for roasting garlic the easy way:

Cut off the tip of the garlic head so that each clove is exposed. Place it on a piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle the whole head of garlic lightly with olive oil and season it with salt and pepper. Pinch the foil around the garlic like a packet - loose enough so that steam can form, but tightly enough so that the steam doesn't escape. Then bake it at 400 degrees for about a half-hour. It's done when the garlic pinches out of the skin easily and is nicely browned (see photo). You can spread it on bread, toss it with vegetables, or just put it in anything that would be improved by a little roasted garlic flavor, such as mashed potatoes!!!


Shrimp and Spinach Fettuccine Alfredo

Given that my husband and I are trying to lose a few pounds, "Shrimp and Spinach Fettuccine Alfredo" doesn't seem like your normal diet food. Nonetheless, I think making small changes is the surest way to stick to "a plan," so that it doesn't seem so much like "a plan," but a new-and-improved way of cooking and eating. At least, that's what seems to be working for us at this point. After a hard week at school (exams and all that), I was craving comfort food, and for me, that means pasta, in particular creamy pasta (think my mom's macaroni and cheese - delicious and satisfying but laden with fat and calories). I was thinking of making fettuccine alfredo. Now you may be asking yourself, "What is light about fettuccine alfredo?" Well, that's the challenge. I made some minor changes to my usual recipe by removing butter and oil, using Simply Smart fat free milk (which Chris and I like more than usual skim), and using spinach fettuccine instead of regular pasta for a vegetable boost. Both of us were pleasantly surprised at the excellent flavor, so much that this new way of making alfredo may become our usual way. Isn't that the point?

Note: This recipe made enough for two dinners and lunch-sized leftovers for one.

1/2 lb. spinach fettuccine
2 slices bacon
1/2 lb. shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1/2 teaspoon each salt and black pepper
1 cup fat-free milk
pinch of nutmeg
1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese

Prepare the pasta according to package directions. In a medium-sized sauce pan, cook the bacon and remove it, leaving the drippings in the pan on medium-high heat. Add the shrimp and garlic to the pan and cook until the shrimp is pink, 2-3 minutes. Take the shrimp and garlic out and set aside in a small bowl. Add the flour to the pan and season it with the salt and pepper. Stir it over the heat for 30 seconds, then slowly whisk in the milk. Put in the pinch of nutmeg and cook the milk about four minutes, stirring often, until it thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the parmesan cheese. To serve, toss the pasta, shrimp and milk mixture together with the bacon crumbled on top.


Inauguration Celebration: Soup and Champagne

Politics aside, Chris and I invited some friends to our house on Tuesday night to celebrate the peaceful transition of power known as the Inauguration of the President of the United States. We DVR'd the ceremony and speech as well as some of the pre- and post- festivities so we could all view together while sharing a simple meal. It being a school night, and a not-so-hot economy, our menu was simple: a variety of soups and breads and of course, celebratory pseudo-champagne (a $6.99 per bottle brut rose cava we found at Trader Joe's).

For our part, Chris and I bought some sourdough rolls, baguettes and peasant breads, made the
roast pork chili that we posted about in early January and did a basic chicken noodle soup with homemade stock. The guests pitched in the rest and the result was a six-soup feast. Foodie friend J. brought dhal, a wonderfully spiced curried lentil soup. Neighbors the W's brought a hearty and flavorful venison stew. Neighbor J. made a white chicken chili with a variety of toppings that gave it a nice Southwestern kick. And our other neighbor J. did a thick and creamy kielbasa-potato-cabbage soup. Friends E. and M. rounded off the meal with a berries-and-cream angel food cake while neighbor B. brought her famously delicious chocolate-chip cookies. Latecomers the G's brought a zesty taco-dip and chips for those needing a post-meal snack.

The spirit of hope and togetherness was in the air as we enjoyed each other's culinary creations and good company, then, silent for the good part of an hour, witnessed history in the making. Politics aside, we're thinking this should be an annual thing.


What Do You Mean We Have No Panko???

Like most foodies, I love me some Food Network. Lately, my fave chef is Anne Burrell. I love her pure, unabashed enjoyment of the whole cooking and eating process. I love that she's not stick- thin. I love that her enthusiasm is contagious. And I love that she shares her restaurant-chef secrets. She did a pretty simple Chicken Milanese on Saturday morning's program that inspired last night's dinner.

I convinced myself that we had everything we needed for this easy recipe, but didn't actually check. Lesson learned. We had no
panko. Sure, normal or even Italian-seasoned bread crumbs would have sufficed, but panko would have given them that light crunch Chris and I love, so any way it came out would have been disappointing.

Nevertheless, we carried on. I butterflied two boneless, skinless chicken breasts and put them through what every chef I know calls "the standard breading procedure" - dip them in seasoned flour, then beaten egg, then bread crumbs, and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes to set. While they were in the fridge, Chris went about prepping the side dish.

For her side, Anne had done an escarole salad, but that would have meant a trip to the store. Figuring that lemon is a traditional flavor in Chicken Milanese, we decided on lemon green beans. That involved the simple act boiling trimmed green beans for four minutes in well-salted water and tossing them in a tablespoon of lemon juice and a teaspoon of lemon zest. Easy!

When it was time to cook the chicken, I covered the bottom of a frying pan with olive oil and waited patiently for it to heat. I gently placed the chicken in and let the oil do its thing, flipping once to make sure both sides were nice and brown (as Anne says, "Brown food is good!"). I squeezed a little lemon juice over the chicken and that was dinner.

Could it have been better? Absolutely. First, the lemon on both the chicken and the green beans made the dish just too lemony. Also, the chicken, although perfectly cooked if I may say so myself, had little flavor since I had used plain breadcrumbs. It just needed more seasoning, so much that we ended up dipping the pieces in barbecue sauce. Yes, it's true - not everything we cook is fabulous. But it only took about 1/2 hour, it was relatively wholesome even though we had pan-fried the chicken, and it wasn't the worst thing we've ever eaten. Nevertheless, panko is the first item on the grocery list now.


Classic Restaurant Supply

We found ourselves in Hartford on Saturday in a quest for firewood (they were closed) and stopped into nearby Classic Restaurant Supply to see if they had a 12'' magnetic knife strip (our collection has gotten too large for the one we have). They didn't have one in stock. We were 0 for 2 on our errands today, but we did enjoy a 1/2-hour browse through this store that is so fun for professional and home cooks alike. Everything you could ever want in your kitchen - every pot, pan, knife, gadget, tool, appliance, et al. - is in there. We went down every aisle, pointing out this or that to each other, with cries of "Oh! I want that!" repeated again and again. I knew we had to leave when I spotted Chris trying on a red chef's jacket. He turned and said, "Wouldn't it be fun to wear these when we cook..." and while I did think that would be fun, we paid for our cast-iron grill press and headed home in the snow.


A Couple Tries to Lose Weight

If you're a regular reader, you probably understand why Chris and I each find ourselves at our heaviest-weight-ever. Clearly we love food (and wine!), almost to a fault, and we're no strangers to meals made with plenty of butter, cheese, breads and pastas. So now we are literally facing ourselves in the mirror and making those New Year's resolutions to lose some pounds and get healthier. We have a Wii Fit and have vowed to get on it at least four times a week. That isn't difficult; it's pretty fun and there are a wide variety of aerobic and strength-training exercises as well as balance games and yoga. The food thing, well, that's a little more difficult, but let me tell you about our decent start.

On Monday, I made my New Orleans-style red beans and rice but used brown rice instead of white. This may not seem like a big deal, but not only is it against Southern tradition, the fact is, I'm not a fan of brown rice. But sacrifices must be made, I guess!

Tuesday we had a very healthy dinner of tilapia with steamed broccoli. I'm not a fish-lover either (my friend J teases me about my "approved-foods lists") but thought I'd give it a try, omega-3's and all that. I adapted the recipe from a February 2009 issue of Cuisine at Home my mom gave me the other day (thanks, Mom!). We brushed the two fillets with a mix of olive oil and Chinese five-spice powder and pan-seared them for three minutes on each side. We made a sauce to accompany it which consisted of 1/4 cup of apricot preserves, 1/4 cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, a dash of red pepper flakes, a clove's worth of minced garlic, and a tablespoon of fresh ginger, all of which we simmered in a small saucepan until it became thick (about five minutes). The five-spice and ginger offered a lot of warmth to the dish while the apricot and orange complemented the fish well, as acidity often does. The verdict? Chris really liked it and I would make it again.

Wednesday was (hurray!) a snow day and we had a gut feeling it would be, so Chris came home from work Tuesday with groceries from Hartford's Apple Tree, a famously inexpensive shop that specializes in excellent produce. We decided to do a simple, comforting, perfect-for-a-snow-day beef stew with plenty of vegetables. The beef came out a bit tough (not sure if it was the cut or the cooking time) but overall it was tasty and satisfying while being healthy and low-fat too!


1 lb. lean beef steak, cubed
3 tablespoons flour (divided)
1 large onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes (we used Muir Glen Organic)
2 carrots, chopped
1/2 cup pearl onions
1 cup beef broth
1 cup peas (frozen is preferable but we used canned)
2 ounces red wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons olive oil

Preheat oven to 200. Heat the olive oil in a large oven-proof pot over medium heat. Season 2 tablespoons of flour with salt and pepper and dredge the beef in it. Brown the beef in the oil, then remove the beef and set aside. Add the chopped onions and garlic to the pot and saute until the onions are translucent. Add the remaining flour and thyme, and cook for a minute. Pour in wine, tomatoes and beef broth then add carrots, pearl onions, peas and the bay leaf. Mix well. Return beef to pot. Bring to a simmer, cover and place in oven. Cook until meat is tender, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 1/2 hour.


Leftover-Roast-Pork Chili

I woke up Saturday morning to the sound of the phone ringing. It was a foursome of in-laws reminding me of the promise of lunch I had made to them on Christmas Day. One would think that two teachers with time off over the holidays would have been prepared for this, but of course, we had been too preoccupied by relaxation. I called my friend J for her chili recipe, knowing I probably didn't have enough time (they'd be here in an hour and a half!) but it was worth a shot. Alas, she was not home. What to do??? After a quick browse through the fridge, I knew that the leftover pork roast was my only hope. Thus was born "Leftover Roast Pork Chili." It made enough to fill five (Donnie was still full from his 6-egg-omelet-breakfast) with the other two men enjoying seconds. I served it with a 3-cheese semolina bread I bought at the local grocery store. Compliments abounded, but the best was that it was gone so quickly I didn't have time to take a good picture!


1 16-oz. package Jimmy Dean Hot Pork Sausage
2 cups leftover roast pork, chopped into bite-sized pieces
2 medium-sized onions, chopped
2 bell peppers, chopped (I used a red one and an orange one)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 28-oz. can tomato sauce
1 14-oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 1/2 14-oz. cans cannellini beans, drained
1 cup chicken broth
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 Tablespoon Italian seasoning
2 teaspoons oregano
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper

Put olive oil in a large stock pot and heat it over medium-high heat. Put in the onions, peppers and garlic into the pot. Add salt and pepper to taste as well as Italian seasoning and oregano. Saute vegetables and seasonings for 5-7 minutes until vegetables are softened. Crumble the sausage into the pot and brown it, being sure to break down any large pieces. Add the roast pork and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add both types of tomatoes, the beans and the chicken broth. Place the two bay leaves in the mix. Stir it well and often, and let it simmer for at least 1/2 hour, up to one hour. Serve with crusty bread.


Perfect Roast Pork

We had plenty of potato pave left and have been craving roast pork since we went to my sister's, wanted to make it, and found out they had had it the night before. So we had our New Year's Day menu all set for us. We went back and forth on how to do the pork, checking out a few cookbooks and discussing the pros and cons of browning, braising, and the like. In the end, we let our instincts guide us toward our goal - a well-seasoned, juicy roast with a browned crust. The roast pork came out so perfectly and went so well with our sides that we liked it even better than our New Year's Eve dinner! Here's our "recipe":


1 3-lb. pork butt
3 sprigs fresh rosemary
salt and pepper to taste
5-6 garlic cloves
2 cups water

Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Chop the leaves from one sprig of rosemary very finely. Place the pork in a roasting pan, fat side up. Season the pork with salt, pepper and the chopped rosemary. Place in the oven and cook for 20 minutes. Add the 2 rosemary sprigs, garlic and water to the bottom of the pan, scraping up the fond and return to oven. Set oven at 250 degrees and roast for 45 additional minutes, basting every 15 minutes or so. Allow the roast to sit as you place the liquid on the stovetop and boil to reduce slightly. Serve sliced au jus with your favorite side dishes.

Chris' Potato Pave

Back when we were dating, Chris made me a Valentine's Day dinner that neither of us will never forget. I had had a bad day at work and a long meeting after that. It was sleeting and I had to drive from CT to MA and I was not happy about it. Chris called my cell to inform me about the main course - lamb chops and potato pave. I remember saying something sarcastic; at the time I was not a fan of lamb, and I equated potato pave with potatoes au gratin, also not a favorite of mine. Chris remembers me scolding him harshly on his lack of romanticism, cooking me a dinner of foods I don't like, etc. etc. I'm sure it wasn't all that bad... But anyway, I apologized profusely, especially since the dinner was amazing, and potato pave has since become my favorite Chris dish of all time. It's ridiculously unhealthy, full of heavy cream and cheese, and it takes a lot of effort, but for once in awhile or special occasions (like New Year's), it rocks.

Special equipment: Loaf pan lined with aluminum foil, mandoline, cheese grater, brick or other heavy object that fits in the loaf pan. See picture for layering technique.

5-6 potatoes (we used red potatoes this time)
1 pint heavy cream
2 cups grated parmesan
black pepper

Butter all sides and the bottom of the aluminum-foiled loaf pan. Using a mandoline, slice the potatoes as thinly as possible, then soak in the heavy cream. Layer the sides and bottom of the pan with one layer of potatoes, overlapping slightly. Top the potatoes with a thin layer of parmesan cheese and season with black pepper. Fill the middle of the loaf pan with several layers of potato-cheese-pepper until the pan is full and/or you are out of potatoes. Top with cheese and bake at 400 degrees for 40 minutes. Immediately after removing from oven, put a brick or other heavy object on top of the pave and chill (Note: we often make this in the winter and chill it by placing it in some snow). When you are ready to eat the pave, flip it and peel off the foil (see picture). Serve it in slices that you've browned in a frying pan.


Happy New Year!

Chris and I have stayed in almost every New Year's since we bought our home. My friend J calls New Year's Eve "amateur night" - when the younger crowd goes out for overpriced and underwhelming meals, drinks too much and then hits the road as soon as the ball drops. I prefer to be home eating something that took too much time to make but was worth it, drinking a nice bottle I lugged home from somewhere I traveled to that year, and avoiding the highway at all costs. This year was no different, other than a 10 p.m. walk in the bitter cold to the neighbors' where we played Rock Band 2 for a few hours (who knew I was such a great lead vocalist and Chris was such an amazing drummer, ha ha) and toasted the New Year with good friends.

For dinner, we made our own version of Beef Wellington. Much to my foodie friends' chagrin, and often, disdain, I don't like mushrooms which are a main component in a traditional Beef Wellington. I offered to eat them in the spirit of epicuriousity but Chris gave me an out - we decided to substitute chopped sundried tomatoes and roasted garlic, thus turning our Wellingtons into an Italian accompaniment to the 2001 SuperTuscan I brought home from Italy this summer. With the beef, we had green beans tossed in ghee and my favorite dish that Chris makes, potato pave. The recipe for our Italian-style Beef Wellingtons (let's call it "Beef Wellingtonio!) is below, and I'll post the pave another time. I wish all my readers a Happy 2009!

1/2 package puff pastry sheets (thawed)
2 4-oz. sirloins
1/2 head roasted garlic
4 pieces sundried tomato
2 slices proscuitto
2 tablespoons red wine
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
olive oil
salt and pepper
1 beaten egg yolk

Season the steaks with salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with olive oil and put in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes (for medium rare). Take out the steaks to cool. While the steaks are cooling, saute the sundried tomatoes and roasted garlic in the butter and red wine for 7 minute, stirring often. Lay out the proscuitto and spread the tomato-garlic mixture over it. Place the steaks on one side of the proscuitto and wrap it, with the tomato-garlic mixture, around the steak. Cut the puff pastry sheet in half and lay one steak in the center of each sheet. Brush the edges of the pastry with egg yolk and wrap the pastry around the steak, crimping the edges well. Brush the entire thing with egg yolk and bake for 20 minutes at 400 degrees.