Sunday, August 31, 2008

Shrimp Creole Pasta

I know it's been a couple of weeks since I posted; I had a bad bout of the flu that kicked my butt for a good while. It's hard to write when you are fuzzy in the head from cold meds!

I've made this shrimp Creole pasta many, many times, most recently Thursday night for dinner with my good friend Deirdre Steinfort, and I thought it was fitting with the weather hitting the Gulf! New Orleans is and always will be one of the most important food cities of the US, with a long history and tradition that far pre-dates Emeril Lagasse, no doubt one of its most famous residents.

Anyway, there's a bit of chopping involved but even that can be cut down if you can find pre-cut frozen onions and peppers in your supermarket. A couple of chicken tenderloins, diced and cooked with a sprinkle of Creole seasoning before the veggies, can add more heft to this dish if needed. PLEASE use good pasta -- Barilla isn't imported but it's the only American pasta I use (yes, it's actually made here, in Iowa); I love imported brands like DeCecco, Dellaverde and others. Because they are made with real durum wheat semolina, they are much easier to cook to a perfect al dente than mass-produced American brands such as Mueller's.

Serves four comfortably, especially with salad and bread.

8 ounces imported fettuccine (preferably the kind sold in a bag of nests)
1 28 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 medium sweet onion, cut in half and sliced thinly (1 cup frozen)
1 large red bell pepper, cut in half and sliced thinly (1 cup frozen)
1/2 large green bell pepper, sliced thinly (1/2 cup frozen)
1 head garlic, smashed and chopped coarsely (about 4 tablespoons jarred)
2 cups dry white wine
1 chicken or vegetable bouillon cube (I prefer Knorr)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 tablespoons real butter
2 tablespoons Tony Chachere's or Zatarain's Creole Seasoning

Heat olive oil over medium high heat in a large deep skillet or wok. Add onions and peppers; cook five minutes or until they begin to soften. Add garlic and cook two minutes. Sprinkle with Creole seasoning. Stir well. Add wine and let cook down for five minutes.

Add tomatoes and their juices and bouillon cube. Let simmer over medium heat, stirring often, for 15 minutes. Add shrimp and cook five minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cold butter. Taste for seasoning, and if you want it, add more Creole seasoning.

While sauce simmers, cook pasta in at least 6 quarts boiling salted water until al dente. Follow package directions for time. Drain.

Add sauce to pasta, mix well to combine. Serve immediately.

If adding chicken, use an additional two tablespoons olive oil. Heat that olive oil, add diced chicken breast meat and cook until browned on all sides. Sprinkle with a little Creole seasoning while cooking. Remove chicken, and proceed from top of recipe. Add chicken back in to sauce with tomatoes to finish cooking.

If feeling adventurous or wanting a real indulgence, substitute the shrimp with cooked and peeled crawfish, lobster meat or langostinos!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Totally Addictive French Toast

There's no support group for it yet, but everyone I have made this French toast for is an addict. A few years ago, at Christmas time, I hit on the idea of using egg nog with an extra beaten egg for the batter. Turns out it worked better than using milk and eggs because the egg nog was already emulsified, so the cinnamon I added actually worked in to the batter instead of floating on top.

Now, I use fat free French vanilla coffee creamer with a beaten egg. Same effect -- the cinnamon beats in nicely, I don't need to add any sugar, and it's fat free. Other flavor options such as cinnamon hazelnut or dulche de leche are wonderful too.

For an extra cinnamon-y flavor, I use Pepperidge Farm cinnamon swirl bread or cinnamon raisin bread instead of plain white or sliced French or Italian. Of course, if you are not the cinnamon fanatic that I am, plain bread of your choice is fine; I used potato bread once at my sister's house and it was great! Remember that the thinner the bread, the less time it should be dipped in the batter. I always do that very quickly because I can't stand soggy French toast.

This French toast goes great with bacon, sausage, strawberries and whipped cream -- whatever. Just don't use cheap syrup!

For 12 slices French toast:

1/2 cup non-dairy French vanilla coffee creamer
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla, if desired
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
12 slices bread, no more than 1/2 inch thick

Beat eggs with a fork or whisk until well-blended. Whisk in creamer, vanilla (if using) and cinnamon until well-blended.

Heat a large non-stick frying pan over medium high heat. Spray with butter-flavored cooking spray or grease lightly with margarine. Don't use butter; it may burn.

Working quickly, dip three or four slices bread into the batter and place in hot pan. Cook about two minutes and turn. Cook until golden on both sides. Remove slices from pan and keep warm. (I put them on a plate and stick it in the microwave or oven.) Repeat, using more cooking spray on the pan, until all bread is used. (I always keep the jar of cinnamon handy in case I need to sprinkle some directly on the pieces while they cook.) Serve warm with butter, syrup, fruit, whipped cream, jam -- whatever strikes your fancy!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Zatarain's New Orleans Mixes

I can make red beans and rice, jambalaya, dirty rice, etoufee, shrimp creole and other Cajun goodies from scratch... and when I have the time, I like to do just that. After working all day plus a couple of hours on the road, that is just not happening very often. This is where Zatarain's comes in.

Besides their Creole seasoning, which I use all the time, I love their mixes as quick and easy bases for dinners in a hurry that cost almost nothing. For those concerned about it, Zatarain's even makes reduced sodium versions of their most popular items. Most of the mixes are between $2 and $3 each and will feed a few people for dinner, especially when paired with salad and bread.

Of course, I don't leave the mixes alone! Even though I love spicy food, the jambalaya mix packs a bit of a punch for most people, so I add 1/2 cup extra parboiled rice and 1 1/2 cups more water to it. I use Eckrich skinless smoked sausage (which is also available in an all turkey variety) ($2), a can of stewed tomatoes, diced finely ($1), and a little dry white wine ($$ up to you!) to take a boxed dinner to a new level with very little effort.

Jambalaya for 4:
1 box Zatarain's Jambalaya mix, regular or reduced sodium
1 pound smoked sausage, sliced in 1/2 inch thick rounds
1 14 ounce can stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup white wine
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup parboiled rice

Drain the tomatoes well and measure their liquid to include as part of the liquid called for on the package directions. Mince drained tomatoes finely. (It's almost more mushing than mincing!)

Heat olive oil over medium high heat. Add sliced sausage and saute for a few minutes, until sausage is browned a bit. Add white wine to pan and let cook until wine is almost gone. Add liquid from tomatoes with enough water to make 2 cups required by package. Add an extra 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil.

Add in rice and seasonings from Zatarain's package, extra 1/2 cup rice and tomatoes. Stir well. Bring back to a boil, cover and reduce heat to medium. Let simmer 20 minutes or until rice is tender. Stir occasionally while cooking. Rice should be moist with a little liquid still on it.

Serve immediately with hot French bread and a mixed green salad. Serve with extra Tabasco, Crystal or Frank's Red Hot Sauce on the side if desired.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Roasted Italian Sausage, Potatoes and Peppers

I made this a few days ago and took leftovers to work, where my co-workers inhaled it. It's one of those things that is better the second day. It's also actually very easy, especially if you use pre-chopped frozen onions and peppers and jarred garlic as short cuts. If you don't like pork or want a lower-fat version, try a turkey or chicken sausage instead.

1 pound mild Italian sausage
1 large sweet onion or 1 cup frozen chopped
1 large red bell pepper or 1 cup frozen chopped
4 potatoes – medium to large sized – I used 2 red and 2 white
Olive oil
1 bulb garlic (that’s the whole head) or about 8 cloves jarred or 2 tablespoons pre-chopped

Preheat oven to 425.

Peel skin from sausages and cut into chunks. Toss lightly with olive oil or cooking spray.

Peel and chop onion. Chop pepper. Peel and chop garlic. Large pieces are fine for all of that! Put together in a bowl and pour over about ¼ cup olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt, pepper, oregano, parsley and paprika. Mix well and let sit.

Scrub potatoes and chop each into 6 or 8 pieces depending on size. Put in a glass bowl and cover with cold water; add 1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt. Microwave 20 minutes on high to partially cook.

While potatoes microwave, cook only sausage in oven. Shake the pan to turn pieces every few minutes so they brown evenly. When sausage is browned (it will not be cooked all the way), take pan out of oven. Add onions, peppers and garlic to pan.

Drain par-cooked potatoes, and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season like the peppers and onions. Add a little cayenne pepper for spicier flavor if desired. (By a little, I mean shake the container 2 or 3 times and stop!) Mix well to coat the potatoes with oil. Add potatoes to sausage and veggies. Using a large pancake turner, mix well (but gently!).

Bake at 425 for about 40 minutes. Stir well after 20 minutes. When done, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese and let stand 5 minutes before serving. Great with a salad and a medium-bodied red wine like Pinot Noir.

Pepperoni Rolls

I am from West Virginia. (Make jokes at will!) It is one of the most beautiful places in the US, if not the world, even if life there is a little simple for my tastes. However, speaking of tastes, one of the most wonderful foods in the world was invented in Fairmont, West Virginia -- the pepperoni roll.

A humble hand-held loaf of good white bread dough with pepperoni baked right into it, the pepperoni roll is a lunch box standard, a fixture in every convenience store and frequently on the menu (baked with a little cheese and Oliverio's Peppers in sauce) of local non-chain pizza joints "back home." West Virginia kids practically cut their teeth on pepperoni rolls!

Although the origins of pepperoni rolls have never been confirmed, one of the many (and most common) theories is that one of the many Italian housewives in north-central West Virginia created the pepperoni roll as a self-contained, hand-held, no-refrigeration-needed way for her coal miner husband to have a decent lunch with no assembly on his part.

Although they are not commercially available outside West Virginia, and small parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky where they have migrated across the borders, authentic pepperoni rolls are easy to make. There are no Oliverio peppers available nationally, sadly, but Mancini makes a widely available version that is just as good.

Pepperoni rolls are baked with or without cheese; provolone, mozzarella and pepper Jack are the most commonly used. If you choose to bake cheese into your pepperoni rolls, add it SPARINGLY.

Too much cheese before baking will cause the dough to fail to rise properly, according to my good, good friend Donna DeCarlo, a Fairmont native and pepperoni roll authority who taught me how to make them. Her other tip for perfect rolls every time? Baking parchment. Essentially wax paper without the wax, baking parchment will make every roll golden without a single dark spot!

For 18 rolls:

1 pkg of 3 loaves Bridgford or Rhodes frozen bread dough
1 pound good pepperoni, peeled and sliced thin (the deli will peel it for you!)
4 ounces mozzarella, provolone or pepper Jack cheese, sliced thin (optional)

Take dough out of package; set on towels and keep covered with more towels. Let dough thaw. Slice each loaf into 6 pieces. Let come to room temperature, keeping covered all the time.

Stack pepperoni and slice into thin strips.

When dough is room temp, take each piece and pat into a circle, like a small pizza. Take a small handful of pepperoni strips and lay into the middle of the circle. If using cheese, add two small thin pieces, no longer or thicker than the pepperoni stack. Fold the sides in, and then tuck the ends over and pinch to seal.

Place finished rolls back on towels and let rise for another hour. Preheat oven to 350. Bake rolls in hot oven, on pans lined with baking parchment, for about 15 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool completely before wrapping or packing in containers or bags.

Pepperoni rolls may be eaten as they are, but for the most sublime experience, split the roll down the middle and spoon in a little of the above mentioned peppers in sauce, a little marinara sauce on top of that, and then some shredded mozzarella. (Use just the marinara if you can't get/don't have/don't like the peppers!) Bake in a toaster oven (or regular oven) at 450 degrees for about 5 minutes or until crispy on the edges and the cheese is melted.

For more info and lore on pepperoni rolls, go here.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Vegetarian Minestrone

I promised Tracy I'd post this since she's a vegetarian, but it is SO good, carnivores can't believe it doesn't have meat. If you really want the meat, a little diced ham is a nice addition. I've made a note as to where it would be added in. Truth be told, I made this up for a cooking class and didn't even test it until I was in front of the class. Luckily, it worked, and has every time I've made it since. This is pretty easy, especially if you use a lot of pre-cut frozen veggies. The list of ingredients seems long, but this is ready in less than 30 minutes once the vegetables are chopped, and almost all of them are available frozen or canned.


Minestrone and other soups are very popular in Tuscany, where the clever and thrifty cooks are legendary for exquisite soups made largely from leftovers. There are both winter and summer recipes for minestrone; classically, the soup is only made from vegetables in season. This recipe combines elements of both versions, but feel free to use whatever vegetables you like.

8 cups vegetable or chicken stock (dissolve Knorr stock base in water)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 cup each chopped onion, carrots and celery
1 leek, split lengthwise and rinsed well, white and light green parts only, sliced 1/4 inch thick
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 teaspoons each dried rosemary and thyme
1 bay leaf
pinch hot red pepper flakes
1 zucchini, diced or 1 cup frozen
1 summer squash, diced or 1 cup frozen
1 14 ounce can diced tomatoes
1 14 ounce can Cannellini or white kidney beans
2 cups fresh or 1 cup frozen spinach or Swiss Chard leaves, chopped
1 cup small soup pasta like tiny shells or orzo or ditali
Jarred Pesto and grated Parmesan cheese to serve
4-6 slices bacon, diced or 2 cups diced cooked ham (optional)
Rind from a wedge of Parmesan cheese (optional)

Heat olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot. Add garlic, onions, leeks, celery and carrots and sauté until softened. Add herbs and cook 3 minutes more. Add vegetable stock, rind of Parmesan cheese (if using) and remaining vegetables and beans. Simmer 20 minutes over medium low and then raise heat to bring to a boil.

Add 1 cup pasta and cook until pasta is tender. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot and put a spoonful of pesto in each bowl and then garnish with Parmesan cheese. For a variation, add some chopped bacon to the olive oil and cook until crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels; add back to the soup right before serving. Cooked ham can also be added with the vegetables and allowed to simmer into soup.

My Philosophy on Food and Eating

If it tastes good, enjoy it -- in moderation. There is no point in eating "health food" if you have to choke down and/or regret every bite. Better to have a really exquisite experience with a small amount of a wonderful food than to try to eat a plate of garbage you don't want.

Organic? I don't buy it. In this country, we do not do the extensive soil testing and oversight that the EU does, and truly organic food is impossible anyway with the lamentable state of our air and ground water. (Although we are apparently in far better shape than Beijing!) True, eliminating the chemical pesticides and fertilizers removed in so called organic produce is BETTER than not, but I don't think that the degree of improvement justifies the exorbitant amount added to the cost to the consumer.

Better to buy locally from farmer's markets and stands when possible than to worry about fancy organic supermarkets which overcharge; what proof do you have that the produce is really any safer anyway? In light of the recent salmonella epidemic, I have very, very little faith in the oversight powers of the FDA and certainly I don't have faith in the honesty of most corporations, including large corporate-run farms.

I believe it IS possible to eat well without spending a fortune, and like Rocco di Spirito (who I interviewed last year!) I see that grocery store prepared and partially prepared meals have come leaps and bounds in the last few years. This is a real boon for busy people who still want to eat well without eating out every night. These products can be the base of meals, and require very little to complete them. Cheaper cuts of meat, cooked correctly by braising or stewing, actually have more flavor sometimes; vegetables on the "not so perfect" rack often are exactly what is needed.

We can enjoy just about anything we want as long as we don't go overboard. Part of being healthy is being happy, and eating food we love is a big part of both!

About Cravings & Ravings

I love food, love feeding people even more, and I've been a food writer for several years now. I write a monthly column for The Nashua Telegraph about New Hampshire made foods, and used to write for many other publications and websites including, Merrimack Valley Magazine, 168, the Manchester Mirror, and more. Anyway.... I am now the editor of Welcome to Miami & The Beaches magazine, which is the #1 tourist guide in Miami, and while I love my job, I want to write about other stuff too.

I couldn't choose between writing about politics and news (which I love, and which my friend Tracy Krulik writes about so well on her blog) and writing about food, so I decided to do both.

Easy foods that taste great and won't break the bank are my specialty, and I want to share my experiences (both hits and misses) because I feel that one thing largely missing in today's world is an easy-to-enjoy food experience. With food prices on the rise, restaurants skyrocketing (or closing!) and gas out of control, learning simple and wonderful meals to cook is a great way to cut costs, and maybe tap into a brand new creative side.

So this blog is my place to share recipes and cooking info and tips, along with the occasional (okay, frequent) rant or rave about whatever had struck me that day. That's it; if you have any food topics you'd like covered, let me know!