Monday, April 30, 2012

Quick Bites: English Muffin Pizza

It's a happy day when I find I have all the ingredients for English muffin pizzas -- some whole wheat muffins, the dregs of spaghetti sauce, and mozzarella cheese. They work as a breakfast, lunch, snack or dinner, and can be whipped up in no time flat.

This is a recipe that has never died, and it’s easy to see why. To very loosely paraphrase Ryan Gosling (yes, really): Show me a kid who doesn’t like pizza, and I’ll show you a liar. (He was talking about Emma Stone, but still: She probably likes pizza, too.)

This version comes courtesy of Family Circle magazine, specifically the April 5, 1977 issue. Which brings me to an obvious fact of my homemade cookbook: I was culling some recipes from a collection that Mom had already clipped. (While I may have always been ahead of my time, I wasn’t dexterous enough with scissors at the tender age of three to have cut this one myself.) Still, I saw fit to include it in my own collection at some point.

This slightly classier version of my everyday standard calls for fresh tomato, onion and garlic, and again, that vague “mozzarella cheese slice” we became acquainted with making Stuffed Beefaroni Peppers. Is this a process mozzarella slice they’re calling for? Did that even exist in 1977? The variety of sizes cut by a variety of people has got to be amazing. Additionally, for a recipe proudly touting it “Makes 1 serving at 220 calories,” you’d think accuracy might be a bit more important.

It strikes me how almost quaint this recipe is – there are no speedy shortcuts, like using prepared pasta or pizza sauce, or nuking it in the microwave to melt the cheese. Instead, you’re asked to layer the fresh ingredients and take your time while they bake together in a 400-degree oven. I used the time to peruse the other recipes on the original page – Soy-Flour Waffles, Rice Pulao and yet another version of Stuffed Green Peppers (this time filled with pinto beans and jack cheese). Since all have their calorie counts neatly listed (and none of them more than 350 a serving) and have more than a whiff of health about them, I wonder if the headline was something like “Slim Down for Swimsuit Season!”

As my stomach growled, I assembled the simple ingredients and popped the topped muffins in the oven. Fifteen minutes seems an eternity for those of us raised on the microwave. But the results were astonishing – the muffins became crisp on the underside and chewy in between – just like “real” pizza dough. The tomato, garlic and onion covered by a coat of gooey mozzarella. I’m not used to spending so long on a “lite” lunch for one, but this is a keeper.

Warning: I may be able to fit into my swimsuit after eating this lunch, but with my garlic/onion breath, nobody’s going to want to come to the beach with me. Take the time to brush your teeth or chew gum (or both) after indulging. Please.

English Muffin Pizza
Makes 1 serving at 220 calories.
1 English muffin, split, slightly toasted
4 slices tomato
2 teaspoons finely chopped onion
¼ teaspoon finely chopped garlic
¼ teaspoon salt
4 slices mozzarella cheese
2 pinches leaf basil
2 pinches leaf oregano
2 pinches hot dried red pepper (optional)

Place English muffin halves on baking dish. Place 2 tomato slices on top of each muffin. Combine onion, garlic and salt; sprinkle over tomato slices. Place cheese slices on top; sprinkle with basil, oregano and red pepper. Bake at 400-degrees for approximately 15 minutes until cheese is melted and browned.


·      I used 3T. grated mozzarella (part-skim, low-moisture) divided over the two muffin halves instead of the called-for “mozzarella cheese slice.”
·      The microwave may work in a pinch, but you’ll trade mushiness for speed. So pop ‘em in the oven and put your feet up, or do the dishes, or call your mother: You’ll be glad you did.

Why Don’t You …
·      Make it a point to whip this up during tomato season – garden-fresh tomatoes would take this over the top.
·      Conversely, use up your leftover pizza or pasta sauce to clean out the fridge and save some money.
·      Use the broiler to brown the cheese at the end of the cooking time – or finish your micro-cooked version under the broiler.
·      Experiment with other tops and bottoms – pepperoni slices, Canadian bacon, olives, on extra-crispy, raisin, high fiber    the list, like a pizzeria menu itself, is endless.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rainbow in a Cloud

 Ah, Rainbow in a Cloud – how you shine your beautiful prism of gelatin over my childhood. The marketing genius behind the “in a cloud” phenomena shows no sign of slowing down, as evidenced by the Kraft Foods website, which is still doing a brisk business with everything from “Patriotic JELL-O in a Cloud” (does it salute?) to  “Vanilla-Berry Trifle in a Cloud (the sophisticated Brit).

In my cut-out recipe collection, Rainbow in a Cloud is accompanied by Pudding in a Cloud, which makes it one of the only recipes to have a sibling. The idea is the same in both, or in any “in a cloud” recipe, though – a thick pillow of COOL WHIP cradles the wobbly finger JELL-O (only later – in the, ahem, ‘90s – did the term “JELL-O Jigglers” come into vogue).

I loved the idea of this dessert, which I well remember was advertised heavily in all the women’s magazines of the day. I was also enamored, of course, by the TV commercials featuring Bill Cosby spooning into dessert cups with that gleeful grin of his. I know for certain that what I wished for almost as much as the dessert, was the dessert cups. The epitome of class, that’s what dessert goblets signaled to me. (And what the single-serve plastic version now available in any grocery store will never approach.) We ate dessert, when we ate dessert, on whatever regular kitchen ware was clean. I was (and am) thrilled by the thought of such very food-specific items. I was (and am) thrilled by the thought of opening the refrigerator and finding dessert neatly lined up on the shelves – as if a kind-hearted fairy with a sweet tooth had visited.

In my house, JELL-O is fantastic and much-loved, hospital jokes aside. I knew at least half the dessert would be a slam dunk. But COOL WHIP, ah, COOL WHIP – the evil twin. I had to wrestle with my conscience in the frozen-foods aisle. I know hydrogenation is bad, bad, bad. How could something that has to defrost for four hours in the fridge remotely resemble whipping cream? (My husband adds that he remembers many a Thanksgiving dinner during his own ‘80s childhood where his aunt forgot to defrost the COOL WHIP. Apparently, it’s amusing for the onlookers, if not easy for the host, to saw into frozen WHIP.) With all due respect to the good folks at Kraft (and I give them a lot for turning what is essentially whipped lard into such a cultural icon), we’ve come a long way, baby.

My pan of cherry JELL-O shimmers in the kitchen light – such a pretty red glow.  Next to it, the defrosted COOL WHIP shimmers like a puddle of gasoline. I grab my margarita glasses (the closest thing to a dessert cup in my house) and start assembling.

Though it’s set up for nearly eight hours, something is amiss with my JELL-O. I believe my version of a “short dip” in hot water melted the gelatin a little too much, which makes it almost impossible to remove it from the pan in those beautifully remembered cubes. When I scrape it into the waiting “clouds” it resembles nothing so much as the Red Cross logo – not exactly appetizing. But, as I line the finished desserts side by side on the wire shelf, I feel a shiver of anticipation that has nothing to do with standing in front of the open fridge.

Eating Rainbow in a Cloud on a rainy, April night is apropos – and also delicious. The cherry JELL-O is sprightly and sweet. But, then, oh then, there comes the moment of reckoning when, bracing myself, I spoon into the COOL WHIP. Crap. When did this happen? Creamy, light, one might say ethereal – it’s the perfect foil for the jiggley red JELL-O.  

I’m dizzy as I stare into my now-empty glass. This can’t be happening! I buy organic whipping cream that’s delivered by a milkman! I likened COOL WHIP to pureed jet fuel! The only explanation I can come up with is that I’ve entered a Fringe universe, where COOL WHIP is delicious and an apt substitute for cream. (It’s also possible that hydrogenation technology has advanced so far in the last 20 years that the COOL WHIP of my youth is an entirely different beast than it is today. Anybody know?)

 Either way, as I wash up the dessert goblets, I’ve got to admit I’m something of a convert. My mind races ahead, picturing how I’ll use the rest of the carton. What else can I put “in a cloud”? Fruit cocktail? An inside-out fruit cobbler? Chili? I thumb through my recipe book until I find Pudding in a Cloud. I’ll have to run to the store for instant pudding, I ponder, and that might take too long. So for now, I’ll simply grab a spoon and lean against the counter. Ah, yes, I’m on “cloud” nine, just me and my delicious COOL WHIP.

Rainbow in a Cloud
1 package (3 oz.) JELL-O Gelatin, any flavor
1 cup boiling water
½ cup cold water
1-1/3 cups thawed COOL WHIP Non-Dairy Whipped Topping

Dissolve gelatin in boiling water. Add cold water and pour into 8-inch square pan. Chill until firm, at least 3 hours. Cut into cubes using sharp knife that has been dipped in hot water. Quickly dip pan in warm water. Remove cubes with spatula. Spoon about 1/3 cup of the whipped topping into each of 4 dessert glasses. Using back of spoon, make depression in center and spread topping up sides of glasses. Spoon gelatin cubes into glasses. Makes 4 servings.

·      Take the recipe at face value – a “quick dip” means a brief plunge in warm water. You could probably just leave the JELL-O at room temperature for a few minutes to similar effect. 
·      JELL-O and COOL WHIP like to scream their names. The caps are Kraft's emphasis, not mine, though with my new love, I might as well join them: COOL WHIP! COOL WHIP! COOL WHIP!

Why Don't You...
·      Make this with real whipping cream and do a taste test. You win either way, right?
·      Consider the tenant of moderation. I’m not advocating eating COOL WHIP every night (or real whipped cream, for that matter, which I still think, all things considered, is healthier).
·      Avoid the “reduced” and “fat free” versions of whipped topping. I have to draw the line somewhere, COOL WHIP.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Quick Chicken Chasseur

With apologies to Madame Collins, my eighth-grade French teacher, I had no idea what a “chasseur” was before a quick bit of Internet research. Now, I not only know it means “hunter,” I also know this recipe is the most elegant entry I’ve stumbled upon so far.

A traditional French chasseur – or “hunter’s dish”  is made with chicken breasts, mushrooms and tomatoes and finished with a blaze of cognac, vermouth, white wine or sherry, depending on whose recipe you’re following. (The quick and dirty version here features sherry – specifically Holland House Sherry Cooking Wine – the good folks who printed the recipe in an unknown magazine these many years ago.)

What’s not to love, I thought, reading the directions: Crispy, flash-fried chicken breast strips cloaked in a velvety pan gravy, redolent with tarragon and thyme – a French delight! (And this was before I cracked the sherry.)

I couldn’t figure out why this recipe seemed so familiar to me – it’s not one we ate when I was growing up. Then it hit me: My husband regularly makes a dish his father created called “Chicken Capri” which features many of the same ingredients, but also pasta, capers and artichokes. Different, sure, but still easy to see the influence of the hunter.

I’m a sucker for any meal I can prepare quickly during busy weeknight mealtime. Quick Chicken Chasseur lived up to its name. Everything came together easily, with minimal prep.

As I poured the vegetable oil into my skillet and set the chicken in to bubble away merrily, I wondered why I don’t fry everything in this much oil and a coating of corn starch. The chicken strips took on a crunchy brown exterior that was soon doused in sherry and chicken broth. A few quick turns in the pan and I set it on the back burner for a speedy simmer – leaving me just enough time to rustle up the dishes I’d dirtied.

Fifteen minutes later, I spooned the chicken and sauce over (leftover) mashed potatoes, and we sat down to eat.  My daughter rubbed her tummy and cleaned her plate, my son pronounced it “deee-licious!” and my husband packed the leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

Having not had a traditional chasseur, I’m not at liberty to describe how this fast version may be lacking in taste – or how much time it saves you. The most glaring omission seemed to be salt – the original recipe calls for “chicken broth,” which, in my mind means the low-sodium kind I consider a staple, but which ‘80s cooks would not have reached for, if it was even an option. (See the Notes below for my remedy.) Otherwise, it is a nice entry into our weeknight repertoire. (But first I’ll have to restock the sherry.)

Though I may not have had a clue what the title meant, my childhood self was intrigued enough take a chance on the chasseur. And now, the hunter has become the hunted. I’d like to find other versions (Quick or not) of this dish. Do you make one that you find particularly yummy? Let me know.

Quick Chicken Chasseur
1 pound boneless and skinless chicken breasts, cut in strips
1/3 c. corn starch
¼ c. vegetable oil
½ tsp. each tarragon and ground thyme
¼ tsp. pepper
1 c. sliced scallions
2 c. chicken broth
¾ c. Holland House Sherry Cooking Wine
1 c. sliced mushrooms, fresh or canned
3 tomatoes, cut in eighths
3-4 cups hot cooked rice

Dredge chicken in corn starch. In large skillet, brown coated chicken in oil. Stir in seasonings and scallions. Cook 2 minutes longer. Add broth and Holland House Sherry Cooking Wine. Cover; simmer 10 minutes. Gently stir in mushrooms and tomatoes. Cover; simmer 5 minutes longer. Serve over rice. Sauce may be served separately. Makes 6 servings.

·      After tasting, I added 1 tsp. of salt to the finished dish. I’m sure the original recipe intended regular, sodium-bomb chicken broth, but I rely on the low-sodium kind these days.
·      The recipe says to serve the chicken and sauce over hot, cooked rice, but I rounded up leftover mashed potatoes to equally delicious results.
·      Likewise, I had leftover canned tomatoes from Stuffed Beefaroni Peppers, so I substituted for the fresh, draining them well.
·      I had fresh tarragon on hand so I garnished the dish with 1T. finely chopped in addition to the dried. Delish.

Why Don’t You …
·      Definitely use fresh tomatoes when they’re in season?
·      Forget the recipe even suggested the option of canned mushrooms?
·      Play around with another liquor, like cognac or even champagne? Oh la la!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Stuffed Beefaroni Peppers

Let’s answer the most obvious question first: What exactly is beefaroni? Wiktionary says it’s a “baked dish of macaroni, beef, cheese and tomato sauce,” and, from what I can tell, it can apply to any baked pasta dish – it’s not a word Chef Boyardee came up with himself. However, the canned, capital-B Beefaroni version is what’s called for here and the Chef does promise “lots of beef, no preservatives, totally delicious,” which sounds promising enough.

Stuffed Beefaroni Peppers are the first entry in my homemade cookbook, and it’s unclear which magazine the recipe was cut from. It’s safe to assume, however, it was an ad featuring the very product it stars.  I didn’t dine on much canned, ready-to-eat foods like Beefaroni back in the 1980s, which is one reason, no doubt, I was so enamored of this recipe. That and the fact that, then or now, I’ve never met a pasta dish I didn’t like.

The recipe is simple and surprisingly economical (both peppers and Beefaroni were on sale for $1 apiece at my local Safeway; one can only imagine how inflation has affected both of these items) and, even better: Pretty darn fast. Weekday fast – though I made it on a Saturday night.

If I’m being honest, it’s not the Beefaroni in this recipe I’m dreading – it’s the green peppers. While I’m a fan of red, yellow and orange sweet peppers, green peppers have only a very limited place in my kitchen – in the base of a gumbo or dirty beans and rice, say. The greens play a very minor role, however, due to their unfortunate effects on my digestive system. I remember going through a beef-and-rice-stuffed peppers phase in my early teens after my beloved Seventeen magazine did a piece on easy dinners to make for your family.  (Please tell me you still encourage this kind of behavior, Seventeen!) Mostly, I remember the smell of smooshy, boiled peppers and the chorus of burps that followed the meal. (Very much better was the magazine’s recipe for a no-boil lasagna dish – one could say beefaroni, I suppose – that you covered with plastic wrap and tinfoil and steamed in the oven for almost two hours. Wish I had cut that one out.)

Cooking up the peppers is as stinky as I remember. They emerge from their five-minute bath in boiling water wrinkled and a bit floppy. They’re still firm enough to stand when I place them in my 9”x9” pan, though, and start spooning in the filling. After topping them with mozzarella, I pop them in the oven for 15 minutes.

Plated, they have definite appeal – blistered and bubbling with golden brown cheese. For comparison, I’ve cooked one orange pepper and it glows like a sunburn next to its green companions.

My prediction is that my pasta-loving daughter and her meat-loving brother will scoop out the Beefaroni innards and leave the pepper shells sagging empty on their plates, but I’ve reckoned without the most important factor in single-serve entrees, and the single-biggest clue as to why my eight-year-old self chose this recipe: They're cute. My daughter realized it immediately: “Oh, my sweet little pepper bowl!”  She devoured the innards and a good portion of her pepper (she chose the orange).

No less enthusiastically, my husband and I dug in. The sauce had that sweetness that is ubiquitous in canned, ready-to-eat foods (think: Spaghetti O’s). Though the Chef has promised me “lots of beef,” it is listed fifth on the ingredients label and is really hard to find. Cheese is listed eleventh and is impossible to find, though there is a slight powdery macaroni-and-cheese tang. The green pepper taste reminds me of a supreme pizza, and the shelf-stable firmness of the noodles is reminiscent of airplane lasagna.

But, surprisingly, this dish is somehow more than the sum of its “semi-homemade” parts. I’m not sure I’d put it in heavy rotation, but, yeah, it’s pretty good. It’s quick. It’s fairly healthy. And it doesn’t break the bank.

Score one for the eight-year-old.

Stuffed Beefaroni Peppers
4 large green peppers
1/3 c. chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
2 T. butter or margarine, melted
2 cans (15 oz.) Chef Boyardee Beefaroni
1 can (8 oz. or ½ c.) whole peeled tomatoes, drained and chopped
1 tsp. oregano
4 mozzarella cheese strips

1.     Remove tops, seeds, membranes of peppers. (Reserve tops, chop to measure 1/3 cup.) Cook 5 minutes in boiling water. Drain, set aside.
2.     Sauté onion, chopped green pepper, garlic in butter. Add Chef Boyardee Beefaroni, tomatoes, oregano. Simmer about 10 minutes. Stir occasionally.
3.     Stuff peppers with Beefaroni mixture. Put in baking dish, top with cheese strips.
4.     Bake at 400-degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes. Serves four.

The recipe doesn’t specify how much mozzarella to use – stating instead to top each pepper with a vague “mozzarella cheese strip.” I found 2T. of grated cheese was a nice amount – gooey but not overwhelming.  I used part-skim, low-moisture cheese.

I added back all the chopped pepper tops. The recipe only asks for 1/3 c., but I had about ½ c. total, and I hate waste.

I had enough filling left to stuff another small-ish pepper. If your peppers are on the larger side, you will likely not have this problem.

Why Don’t You…
·      try smoked mozzarella to top the peppers?
·      play around with different colored peppers?
·      stuff peppers with homemade beefaroni leftovers?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Time Capsule Kick Off

The three-ring binder has seen better days. Its waxy, peach-colored cover and spine are split, and the cardboard innards spill out in somewhat floppy, water-stained fashion. It’s had a rough life – well-loved from the seventh grade on. (Peach was something of an obsession with me in 1987 – I also vividly recall peach-colored Converse high-tops, and a peach short-sleeved sweater that I wore under my – wait for it – Seattle Blues denim overalls.)

So, although it survived the rigors of middle school, the binder has a new profession now – just like me. Pressed into service in what I best can determine was the early 1990s and then forgotten in my mother’s garage for the next 20 years (god, has it really be 20 years?) it houses a treasure trove of late-70s to late-80s recipe cards, home ec handouts and grocery store tips that I collected and compiled between the ages of about eight and 15.  Its centerpiece is a homemade cookbook – a labor of love between me and my brother, featuring a cover decorated with magazine picture cut-outs of tomatoes, raw onions, a can of Chef Boyardee Beefaroni, and a very suspicious looking stir-fry concoction, ripe with – are those hotdogs? (Delicious!) Inside a are an inspired collection of beverages, salad dressings, main dishes and desserts – lots of desserts.

Let’s be clear – Julie & Julia this a'int. A quick glance at the titles alone proves that point: "Candle Salad," "Beef Roll-Ups." There seemed to be a heavy reliance on gelatin and cakes made with mayonnaise. These recipes are not exactly nostalgic, because, as far as I can remember – aside from the handouts from my middle- and high-school home ec – I never made any of them. But, like a taste memory, they take me back to the large kitchen of my childhood as surely as if they had been served on the dinner table. Who was this kid who carefully cut out recipes for Quick Chicken Chasseur (what?), Guacamole Ring (there’s that gelatin again), and a “Pumkin” Pie made with Bisquick? What will I learn about myself making these creations my childhood self so wanted to try?

The pedigree of several recipes is unknown – they're newspaper clippings, sure – and the newspaper of my childhood was The Herald from Everett, WA.  But their editors likely reprinted several recipes in their weekly food column, and the origins didn’t always make it past my safety scissors. Other recipes are simply torn from magazines (a practice I continue today), or are typewritten hand-me-downs. The best finds are mimeographed – punchy purple dye gone the way of spilled grape Kool-Aid. I’ve given credit where credit is due, of course, but the origins of several of my experiments are lost to the mists of time.

But wherever they came from, they are my selections – the kitchen fantasies of my childhood self – a latch-key kid whose single-mom worked three jobs to put food on the table and pressed her kids into cooking out of a belief in self-sufficiency and also a necessity. When it was my turn, Mom often came home to a Jenny-O Turkey Roast and a lemon meringue pie.

And that about sums up my kitchen education – and evolution. The good folks at Jenny-O still make their Roast – which creates its own gravy in a disposable aluminum pan and contains so much sodium it makes my tongue swell just to think of it.  Don’t laugh – I also remember it being succulent and tender and delicious. But I spent a lot of my childhood much hungrier than I am now, and I haven’t eaten a Jenny-O Turkey Roast since 1988.

I like to think the lemon meringue pie, though, proves that I had a taste for something other than convenience food, and the wherewithal to make it. These days, I consider myself an above-average cook, adventurous and inventive. But I’m not snobby. I can devour an entire pan of green-bean casserole like nobody’s business.
My culinary time capsule is the best kind of memento. Turning the crispy newspaper, I am struck by what passed for sophistication in my 8-year-old mind. Did I really think a concoction of green peppers, margarine and two cans of Beefaroni sounded tasty? Is there any way my 37-year-old self might still agree?

Well, why not give it a shot? To see if the tastes and times of my youth still thrill me as they once did. One way or another, I made it through a childhood that – like most of them – had its share of horrors and delights. Does the influence of everything good and bad about growing up in the 1980s influence me still? That eight-year-old with her Jenny-O Turkey Roast – she’s still here, right?

At its best, I hope the Culinary Time Capsule provides that rarest of American Dreams – the second chance. Because what else is a time capsule, of any kind, but a hope for the future – a desire to become someone other than you are today. It may no longer be 1985, but maybe, for a meal or two, it can taste like it.

So come along as I travel back to my childhood in the 1980s. I’m sure there will be more than a few laughs, and more than a few dining disasters. But I’m hopeful that, no matter which decade you came of age, you'll find some recipes that have stood the test of time. And in the process, maybe I’ll come closer to figuring the rest of it out, too – memory and childhood, the strange and beautiful lens of nostalgia, and the way food has always done more than feed my hunger.