Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Faves & Fails: Products from Jell-O, McCormick and Green Giant

I'm trying something new this week.... instead of a recipe, I'm writing reviews about new (or new-to-me) foods that I want to share. Some of the reviews are good, some not so good. This will be an ongoing occasional series, and I'd love feedback from readers about my opinions, whether you agree or not.

Jell-O Mousse Temptations
I already liked Jell-O's line of 60 calorie puddings, especially the dark chocolate varieties, so when I saw the new Mousse Temptations in the store, I grabbed the Dark Chocolate Decadence right away. Last night I tried the Caramel Creme for the first time. Wow! Both are delicious, and the Dark Chocolate Decadence really tastes like chocolate mousse and has a great flavor, but it is lighter and airier than "real" chocolate mousse. The Caramel Creme tastes like creme brulee and is also light and airy. Both of these are great for anyone looking for a guilt-free dessert fix. I love chocolate, but I'm very glad Jell-O included a caramel variety for people who don't... or those who just want a change. The name has it right: these are tempting so don't give in and eat the entire six pack at once! At around $3 for six, even the price is guilt-free.

McCormick GrillMates Mojito Lime Marinade Mix
I love McCormick GrillMates dry marinade mixes. They come in a variety of flavors, are inexpensive, use the oil and vinegars I already have on hand and do a great job flavoring and tenderizing meats whether they are meant for the grill or not. The Zesty Herb and Tomato Garlic and Basil are two of my favorites. I also love the Baja Citrus, especially the variation on the package that uses orange juice and honey, so when I saw Mojito Lime, I was more than willing to try it, despite my concern that the mint might be overwhelming. It, like all the GrillMates mixes, has directions for making the marinade with oil, vinegar and water, as well as a variation version. For the Mojito Lime, the variation is to use lime juice and honey with the oil. I tried it on chicken breast, letting it marinate overnight in the fridge, and then threw it on the grill. It was outstanding. The mint was very subtle and blended perfectly with lime and a hint of Caribbean flavor including garlic and a slight chile spark. I loved it and will be trying it again soon with boneless pork loin ribs.

Green Giant Health Blends Frozen Vegetables
Green Giant is one of the most reliable names in frozen foods, and I liked the idea of their Health Blends, which include a mix of veggies targeted at a health goal plus a flavored sauce. There are five varieties: Healthy Weight, Healthy Vision, Immunity Blend, Digestive Health and Healthy Heart. They were on sale at my local Publix supermarket so I grabbed the Immunity Blend and the Digestive Health because they both contained vegetables I love and the sauces on the label sounded good. The Digestive health was navy beans, yellow squash and spinach in a garlic sauce; the Immunity Blend included carrots, red bell peppers and broccoli in an herb and garlic sauce.

I tried the Digestive Health blend first and was completely disappointed. First of all, I have learned that I do not like these "steam fresh" packages that require you to grab the sides of a package of boiling hot food and PULL on them to open it. To me, that's a recipe for burns and I'm sure someone will be suing over that sooner than later. Second, navy beans, squash and spinach have radically different cooking times in the real world and the end result, after following the microwaving instructions on the box, was that the navy beans were undercooked and the squash was a mushy disaster. Third, the sauce was revolting. I know it was supposed to be garlic, but I don't know what was really in there because I have never tasted garlic like that! After two bites, I threw the whole package away.

After that experience, I waited a while to try the Immunity Blend and it was just as bad. The sauce ended up watered down and had a very odd flavor - what little flavor there was, the broccoli was mushy and the carrots were still partially frozen, despite an 1100 watt microwave and following the directions; in fact, the package itself was so hot I had real trouble opening it - yet part of the contents was ice-cold. Again, I threw the whole package away after a couple of bites. I do not have ANY interest in trying any of the other three blends and I think the whole thing is a bad idea. It's much less expensive and better tasting to buy family size bags of vegetables, mix them if you want to and season them yourself. These by Green Giant cost too much in my opinion, and far worse than that, they taste awful.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Chicken with Shallot Cream Sauce

I made this for Valentine's Day dinner, from stuff I happened to have on hand. It is absolutely incredible, and insanely easy at the same time. Braising (browning in fat then cooking in liquid) is a great cooking method for chicken because it ensures the chicken is cooked completely with no risk of drying it out. Shallots, wine, chicken broth and cream come together for a rich sauce that is simple to make.

Because it was a special occasion, I didn't bother with my usual low-fat cooking and used real heavy cream that I had left from creating a cake for a colleague's birthday. To lower the fat and calories, fat free half and half or a can of evaporated skim milk with 2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed into it would work as substitutes. Either one will require longer cooking time to thicken. The butter for browning the chicken can also be swapped for cooking spray - just keep a close on it to prevent burning.

For two servings:
  • 2 8 ounce boneless skinless chicken breasts (or four chicken tenders)
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 3 tablespoons butter or margarine, divided in half
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 medium shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
  • 1 cup white wine (I used Lindeman's Chardonnay Riesling blend)
  • 1 cup heavy cream

Mix the flour with the garlic powder, salt and cayenne pepper. Dredge the chicken in the seasoned flour, making sure it's well coated. Melt half the butter or margarine in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat. Brown the chicken on one side, add the rest of the butter to the skillet, let it melt and brown the other side.

Add the chicken broth, shallots and thyme to the skillet. Raise the heat to high and let cook until the chicken broth is more than half gone. Add the wine and cook until thick and syrupy and reduced by half. Turn the chicken occasionally while it is braising. Remove the chicken from the pan. Add the heavy cream and whisk to combine. Cook over medium high heat until thickened. Let it bubble but not boil, and stir constantly. Pour sauce over chicken and serve.

This is great with simple sides like steamed green veggies and rice pilaf or plain mashed potatoes. It's rich, so you don't need to put a ton of effort into complex sides to go with it. Of course, serve the same wine used in the sauce with the chicken!

A picture will be added soon - it was devoured before I took any!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Caesar Salad Burger

I love Caesar salad, but I'm tired of them with grilled chicken or shrimp. I love burgers, and since I live with a guy who loves them even more than I do, I grill them at least once a week. Pollo Tropical, a local grilled chicken chain in south Florida, used to make a chicken Caesar sandwich, so I thought "Why not translate that to a burger?" I'm sure I'm not the first, but I really liked the results. The burgers are seasoned with some of the ingredients that go into Caesar dressing, and then basically topped with Caesar salad.

When I make burgers, I only use 90% lean sirloin ground beef. I know a lot of grilling experts will say to use 80% lean ground chuck, but I hate dealing with all the flare-ups from the extra grease dripping on the coals. There's also a lot more shrinking with chuck, so even though the price per pound is generally lower, you need more meat to start with to have a decent-sized burger at the end.

Since I use a charcoal grill and only lump hardwood charcoal, the fire takes a while to get going. I light it before I do anything else!

For four burgers:
  • 1 1/3 pounds 90% lean ground sirloin
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons Worchestershire sauce
Combine meat with seasonings and shape into four patties. I tend make mine a little larger and thinner so they cook more evenly. Place on a plate and freeze for 20 minutes. If your charcoal fire isn't being cooperative, don't put the patties in to freeze and have to take them out... just wait a while before freezing them. The point of freezing is to solidify them a bit so they go on the grill more easily and don't fall through the grates, since the added liquid from the Worchestershire can cause exactly that.

Before grilling burgers, spray both sides with Pam or other non-stick spray. Trust me - it's worth the few seconds effort! Grill burgers until at least medium-well, which is 155 degrees internal temperature and should take about 5-7 minutes per side.

While the burgers freeze and cook, assemble the rest of the burger materials.

Fry 8 strips center cut bacon until crisp; drain on paper towels.

Toss 3 cups torn romaine lettuce with Caesar dressing to taste. My favorite is Cardini's; Caesar Cardini invented the Caesar salad at his famous Tijuana restaurant in the 1920s - why use any other brand? Remember that Caesar dressing is very fattening; use it sparingly or buy the light version if you're watching calories and fat.

When burgers are done, top each one with one tablespoon shredded Parmesan cheese and continue cooking so cheese can melt. It likely won't melt completely - that's fine!

While the grill is still hot, brush each inside surface of four buns (any style is fine!) with melted butter or liquid margarine - I Can't Believe It's Not Butter spray is great! - and sprinkle with garlic powder. Grill buns until golden on the inside surfaces.

To assemble, put a bit of salad mix on the bottom half of the bun, top with a burger, then bacon, then more salad and the top half of the bun. If desired, more Caesar dressing can be added to the buns or burgers. If you are serving serious salad fans, serve more salad on the side, with croutons and Parmesan cheese added to it.

For a lower cal version, of course you can use ground turkey or chicken, but the point for me was to make a real beef burger!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Spicy Roasted Sweet Potatoes

I have come to love sweet potatoes since I got away from my nightmarish childhood versions loaded with brown sugar, honey, marshmallows or some ungodly combination of the three. The truth is that sweet potatoes don't need ANY additional sugar... hence the name... and in my opinion, savory or spicy flavorings compliment their natural sweetness without being cloying. This roasted version cooks up crispy with no fat and tons of flavor - my favorite combination.

Making these is easy except for ONE thing: cutting the whole potatoes into halves and then quarters. Sweet potatoes are HARD. If you don't have a lot of arm strength, either find someone who does to help or get the smallest sweet potatoes you can find. Even with a freshly sharpened chef's knife, I had to exert major pressure to cut through the large sweet potatoes I had on hand. I don't have a cleaver and I'm not comfortable with them, but I imagine that might make the job easier too.

For 2-4 side servings:
3 large sweet potatoes or 6 small ones
1 1/2 tablespoons Caribbean jerk seasoning (McCormick is great) or Cajun seasoning (I use Zatarain's)
Non-stick cooking spray

Preheat the oven to 375. With a vegetable peeler, scrape the peels off the potatoes. Cut each potato in half, then in quarters and then into bite sized chunks.

Spray a large baking pan heavily with cooking spray. Lay the potatoes in the pan and spray them with cooking spray. Sprinkle with the seasoning of your choice. (note: jerk tends to be hotter than Cajun!). Toss to distribute the seasoning and re-arrange the potatoes so they are in a single layer. Use multiple pans if needed.

Roast 30-40 minutes, shaking the pan a few times during cooking and turning once if desired.

Note: these do not keep well - they get soft when chilled - so don't make more than needed.

Variation: if both Cajun and Jerk are too spicy for your tastes, try this combination: 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. It's almost the same flavorings I use in my Mashed Sweet Potatoes recipe.