Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pesto Perfection

I realize a lot of people are over pesto because it was used (overused!) on so many restaurant menus for so long. But used correctly, and taking advantage of the different flavors that are widely available today, pesto can be absolutely invaluable to a busy home cook. A little goes a long way, so pesto is also a cost effective way to add a spark to other dishes easily. I usually have classic basil pesto and sun-dried tomato pesto on hand because both are available at virtually every grocery store in America, thanks to Classico. Additionally, I find specialty flavors like roasted red pepper and artichoke at Italian markets and Whole Foods.

No matter what kind of pesto you like, it's easy to add a little to basic dishes to jazz them up. Try some of these tips to get a lot of flavor with almost zero effort!
  • Add 1 tablespoon sun-dried tomato pesto to any packaged noodle dish like Knorr Pasta Sides Alfredo or PastaRoni Angel Hair Primavera. This also works with refrigerated alfredo sauce.
  • Thin pesto with an equal amount of very hot water. Brush on chicken, pork, steaks, fish, shrimp or vegetables on the grill.
  • Thin pesto with an equal amount of extra virgin olive oil - about 1 tablespoon of each - and toss over hot cooked veggies. Very good on zucchini, summer squash, grilled eggplant and asparagus.
  • Blend a teaspoon or two of your favorite pesto with plain or veggie cream cheese to build a better bagel.
  • Spray a whole wheat tortilla with no-stick cooking spray and sprinkle with garlic powder. Bake until crispy (you might need to poke it with a fork during baking.) Spread with one wedge Laughing Cow Light Herb & Garlic Spreadable Cheese, top with pesto and, if desired, a little shredded mozzarella or grated Parmesan. Return to the oven for a few minutes until melted and bubbly. Perfect in the toaster oven!
  • Whisk a couple of teaspoons pesto into two large eggs and 2 tablespoons milk or 1/4 cup Egg Beaters. Spray a 8-10 inch skillet with no-stick spray and heat over medium high heat. Pour in eggs, cook a few minutes until the bottom is set, flip over and finish cooking. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, roll up and enjoy a cross between a French omelette and an Italian frittata.
  • Spread a little of any variety of pesto on crescent roll dough and sprinkle with grated Parmesan before rolling and baking.
  • For an easy pesto pizza, spread a Boboli pizza shell with pesto, sprinkle with grated Parmesan and top with mozzarella cheese. Top basil pesto with fresh tomatoes, sun-dried tomato pesto with fresh basil leaves and spinach, and red pepper pesto with fresh spinach and black olives. Top with more mozzarella and bake according to shell package directions.
  • Of course, classic pasta with pesto is always easy with jarred pesto. The mistake most people make when using pesto on pasta is using too much pesto! For 1/2 pound pasta, cook pasta and - this is KEY - before you drain the pasta, save 1 cup of the cooking water! Return drained pasta to pot, add a few tablespoons pesto and 1/3 cup of the cooking water. Mix well to combine, allowing the hot water to dilute the pesto and help it coat the pasta evenly. Add pesto and water until it tastes right to you. Top with grated Parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Seasoned Breadsticks and Crescent Rolls

Everyone loves crescent rolls - Pillsbury's breadsticks, made of similar dough, are equally irresistible. Make either one often enough though, and they can get a little boring. It is SO easy to add some flavor to either one, without adding any calories or any extra work. Since you're already rolling dough into crescents or twisting it for breadsticks, what could be easier than adding a spritz of liquid margarine a sprinkle of seasonings? Just choose seasonings to compliment whatever is already on the menu.

Roll your crescents or twist breadsticks as directed on the can. Place on baking sheet, and spray each one with liquid margarine (like I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Spray), non-stick cooking spray or olive oil if you have a Misto or something like it. If you don't have any of those, melt a little margarine or butter and brush that on, or do the same with olive oil. Then sprinkle rolls with a little of any of the following:
  • Cajun seasoning blend
  • Lemon Pepper seasoning
  • Garlic powder and freshly ground black pepper (pictured above)
  • Dried basil, oregano and garlic powder - perfect for Italian food, with or without Parmesan cheese and some sauce for dipping!
  • Garlic powder and grated Parmesan cheese
  • Old Bay seasoning (great with seafood!)
  • Herbs de Provence
  • Barbecue seasoning blend - better on breadsticks than crescents, and don't over do it!
  • Dried thyme leaves and black pepper - great with Loaded Baked Potato Soup!
How easy is that? Now that they are widely available, I use the reduced fat crescent rolls whenever possible - that little bit of melted butter I add with the seasonings is that much less waistline damage. Honestly, once I forgot the butter step altogether and just sprinkled the rolls with garlic powder and fresh black pepper and they were still wonderful.

TIP: when I bake crescent rolls on a less-than-shiny-new baking sheet, I put a liner of parchment paper (NOT waxed paper!) on the pan first. The paper makes a layer of insulation between the hotter dark pan and the rolls and keeps them from getting too dark on the bottoms.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

BBQ Chicken Quesadilla

This is so easy I hate to even call it a recipe, but it's too good not to share! Grocery store rotisserie chickens are a gift to busy people who still want to eat well, but using up leftover can be a challenge. This quesadilla is easy and still good for you; even if it's not made with the low-fat cheese and whole-wheat, low-fat tortilla I used, it's still not bad! 1/2 cup leftover cooked chicken, sliced or shredded
  • 1 soft taco size (medium) flour tortilla - I used Mission Plus 96% Fat-free
  • 1 tablespoon BBQ sauce of your choice - I used Sweet Baby Ray's Honey Chipotle
  • 2-3 tablespoons chopped onion - pre-diced frozen makes this recipe even faster!
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-fat shredded Mexican blend or cheddar cheese
  • Non-stick cooking spray
Heat the chicken in the microwave for about 45 seconds to warm it through. Spread BBQ sauce on tortilla; arrange chicken on one half.

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat, spray with cooking spray and cook onions for 3-4 minutes, until they are softened and beginning to brown a little bit. Top chicken with cooked onions and then cheese. Fold tortilla in half (some brands need to be warmed for a few seconds to make that easier!) and spray the top half with cooking spray.

Place quesadilla in hot skillet, spray side down, and spray the new top of it with cooking spray. Cook, turning once or twice, until as golden and crispy as you like it.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Citrus Butter Sauce

My sister Andrea made this sauce for an Irish Christmas dinner she did for a Christmas Around the World event at her church. She served it with a roasted goose, the first one she'd ever made. The photo here is of their table, with the sauce in the front in the lovely shamrock bowl. She gave me the recipe, and although it is delicious as it is, I couldn't resist tweaking it with some variations.

First, the basic sauce:
  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 2 Tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 cup orange juice
Melt butter over low heat and add brown sugar. Cook, stirring constantly, until brown sugar is melted. Whisk orange juice and cornstarch together. Raise heat under butter mixture so that it is bubbling. Slowly pour in OJ mixture, stirring constantly. Let simmer, stirring constantly - don't let that sugar burn! - until thick and smooth.

As I said, Andrea served that as an accompaniment to roasted goose. When I made it, I had marinated chicken tenders in McCormick Grill Mates Baja Citrus marinade mix, a sort of southwestern citrus flavor. I browned the chicken in an oven proof skillet and let it bake for 20 minutes and then served it with this basic sauce. Amazing!

Now, some variations... because this sauce is SO good on its own, I didn't want to overwhelm it with a lot of other flavors. My advice is to try any ONE of the following, added when the orange juice first goes into the pan. Always taste before serving - you can add more herbs if you want, but you can't take them out!
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried rosemary, crumbled - perfect on roasted pork or simply seasoned pork or lamb chops
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried dill or 2 teaspoons fresh chopped dill - serve with grilled salmonor other meaty fish
  • 1/2-1 teaspoon crumbled sage - great with roasted turkey
  • 1 teaspoon Cajun seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon dry Jamaican jerk seasoning
For my Caribbean take on this sauce, replace 1/3 of the orange juice with lime juice. Add 2 smashed garlic cloves to the butter as it melts. Season with 1 teaspoon dried oregano and a little fresh ground pepper. Remove garlic before serving. This will give you a sweeter thicker take on Moko Criollo, a classic Cuban marinade. Serve for dipping grilled shrimp, add a couple of tablespoons into a lobster or chicken salad recipe or serve with just about any grilled meat.