Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pork Chops a la Nicole

One day, probably about a month or so, my cousin Nicole sent me a message on Facebook asking for a recipe suggestion.  It felt a little bit like Chopped - she had a few ingredients she wanted to use for a dinner, and wasn't sure what to do with all of them.  Thankfully, unlike Chopped, the ingredients all fit together nicely, so it was a fun set to try to think into a coherent recipe.

Here's Nicole with her husband Adam and their (bloody adorable) son Logan.

Nicole had pork chops, diced potatoes, and zucchini to work with, and was leaning toward doing it all on the grill.  Pork chops and the grill get along great, so that was no problem.  When it comes to diced potatoes, my first thought was a hash, and I figured the zucchini could fit in there just fine, too.  I suggested a marinade for the pork and a method for putting together a hash, and Nicole said it went great.

I could hardly suggest a recipe without then trying to make it myself, now could I?  I ended up making a few changes to my original suggestions based on Nicole's feedback, but my end result made or a seriously tasty dinner.

Here's what you'll need: pork chops, a bit of bacon, sweet potatoes, zucchini, a sweet onion, some olive oil, some vinegar (white or cider), garlic or garlic powder, basil, oregano, thyme, mustard, salt, and pepper.

First, combine a bit of oil, vinegar, mustard, and lots of the spices into a nice marinade for the pork.  It's best to let it marinate overnight, but if you're in a hurry an hour or two will do the trick.  Let it marinate in the fridge and come back when it's time to cook.

Once the chops have had plenty of time to marinade, grill them up.  For thin chops like I used, 2-3 minutes per side was plenty.  Do your best to time it so that your pork will be done and rested more or less at the same time as the hash, which will take 15-20 minutes to make from chopping to finish.

When you're ready to get started, peel and chop the sweet potatoes, and also chop the zucchini and sweet onion into small, bite-sized pieces.

Give the bacon a rough chop and get it rendering in a pan.  Take care not to overcook it - it'll go back into the pan with the rest of the hash later on.  When it's well rendered, but not yet crispy, pull it out and set it aside.

Drain off most of the excess grease, but leave a few tablespoons in which to saute the diced sweet potatoes.  Cook them, stirring often, until they're starting to brown on the outside.  Try a bite - careful, they'll be hot - and when they're reasonably tender, it's time to add more stuff to the mix.

When the sweet potatoes feel pretty tender, add the zucchini, onion, and bacon, as well as a generous helping of the seasonings - basil, oregano, garlic, thyme, salt, and pepper.  Continue to saute, stirring often, until the zucchini and onion are nice and tender, then taste and adjust the seasonings.  I added just a quick dash of vinegar in the last 30 seconds or so of cooking to brighten the flavors up, and it really helped a lot.

Serve your grilled chops atop a generous portion of hash, and be ready to offer seconds.

Recipe: Pork Chops a la Nicole
Prep Time: 5 Minutes (+2-24 hour marinade) | Cook Time: 15-20 Minutes | Difficulty: Easy | Servings: 6

  • 6 thin Pork Chops
  • 4 medium Sweet Potatoes
  • 4 medium Zucchini
  • 1 large Sweet Onion
  • 8 oz Bacon
  • 3 tbsp Olive Oil
  • 3 tbsp Vinegar (white or cider)
  • 3 tbsp Dijon Mustard
  • 2 tsp Garlic Powder
  • 1 tsp Thyme
  • 1 tsp Basil
  • 1 tsp Oregano
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  1. Combine olive oil, vinegar, mustard in a large resealable bag.  Add seasonings to taste.  Marinade pork minimum 2 hours.
  2. Grill pork chops 2-3 minutes per side until done.  Rest under foil until ready to serve.
  3. Peel sweet potatoes.  Chop sweet potatoes, zucchini, and onion into small, bite-sized pieces.
  4. Chop bacon down into bite-sized pieces and render in a pan over medium heat until tender.  Set aside.
  5. Drain away all but 2-3 tablespoons of grease.  Saute sweet potatoes in bacon grease until golden brown and tender.
  6. Add zucchini, onion, and bacon to skillet with sweet potatoes, season with garlic powder, thyme, basil, oregano, salt, and pepper, and continue to saute until all vegetables are tender.
  7. Optional: Add 1-2 tablespoons cider vinegar to hash in last minute of cooking and stir well.
  8. Serve grilled chops hot atop a generous portion of hash.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dave and Gill's Wedding!

I didn't get to do much cooking this week.   I was off in Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C., where I was lucky enough to stand up in the wedding of two great friends from Denison.  Dave and Gillian tied the knot in a great ceremony, outside in perfect weather, and the week featured some really fantastic food.  I may not have made it myself, and I'm deeply sorry not to have the recipes for some of it, but it was delicious none the less.

Ohhh the rehearsal dinner.  I had the salad, the steak, and the profiteroles, and each were a slam dunk.  The salad was a classic Caesar with great, punchy flavor from the Parmesan and pepper.  

The steak was just stunning.  It was a long, thin cut, grilled quickly to medium and topped with an amazing, herbal compound butter.  Try though I might, I couldn't figure out what all herbs went into the butter - it amazingly complex, and I so wish I had a recipe.  Many undignified sounds were made around the table as we all had our first bites, and the plates were soon very, very clean.

A lot of folks came into the dinner asking "What's a Profiterole?" and left with a new favorite dessert.  Soft, lush ice-cream in nutty, flaky pastry topped with rich chocolate - what's not to like?  All in all, it was a fantastic, fantastic meal.

The dinner at the reception was no slouch, either.  As so often happens on the wedding day, we had little time to eat while preparing, so the groomsmen had subsisted largely on goldfish crackers and oreos up until dinner time.  The starting salad was tasty - totally different from the Caesar of the night before.  It was a great mix of greens with candied nuts, a delicate dressing, and a potent, cheesy crouton.  It didn't last long.

Once again, I went for steak for the main course, though this steak and the rehearsal steak were very different.  The steak at the reception was a whole lot of meat - a manly, thick cut over mashed potatoes and plenty of vegetables.  The peppercorn brandy jus was killer - again, something I'll attempt to recreate in the near future.

And then there was cake.  Dave looks to have gotten a little stabby with the server here as he and Gill made the first cut.

Gill got revenge on behalf of the cake.

There were a couple of cakes hidden in there - both a red velvet and a chocolate/raspberry.  I had a piece of the chocolate/raspberry, and it was everything one could hope for in a wedding cake.  Rich chocolate, tangy raspberry, and just the right amount of frosting.  I meant to go back for some red velvet later on, but was too busy dancing, drinking, and chatting to ever do so.

All in all, it was a great few days away with good friends and fantastic food.  I couldn't be happier for Dave and Gill, and now I'm all the more excited for my own wedding with Kristin next summer.  

I'll be back with a new recipe next week!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Creamy Ranch Pasta Salad

Pasta salad deserves better.  Sure, it's a delicious side, but why leave it there?  Every grocery store deli will happily sell you some gloppy macaroni salad, but come on, we can do better than that.  Why not make pasta salad a main course?  Why not add enough great ingredients that it can stand on its own?  Most importantly -- why not bacon?

As you can see, my board is fuller than usual.  A lot of stuff goes into this pasta salad, but there's not a lot of prep for most of it.  You'll need some pasta, of course.  Go for an interesting shape - I used Cavatappi to great success this time around.

We'll feature a pair of proteins, both chicken and bacon.  For the veggies, I use broccoli, cucumber, carrots, and bell pepper - but you can add or change as you see fit.  A lot of people are into tomatoes - raw ones make me sad, but you can go crazy with them if that's your thing.  I also love some cheese in my pasta salad, so I added a block of extra-sharp cheddar.

Finally, the supporting cast is made up of Greek yogurt, a bit of mayonnaise and sour cream, salt, pepper, garlic powder, and a packet of ranch dressing mix.

We'll start with the chicken.  If it's warm enough outside and you have easy access, you can always just grill it.  Since we don't own a grill, though (alas!), I like to use this method to simulate grilling in the oven while adding a ton of flavor.

First, rinse the chicken and pat it dry.  Season it well with salt, pepper, and garlic powder, then give dip it in the Greek yogurt to coat.  The yogurt dip will keep the chicken super moist while it cooks, even while you get a nice, slightly-blackened exterior.

Lay the yogurt-dipped chicken out on a wire rack atop a baking sheet -- this should let hot air circulate around the whole chicken breast at once and keep the bottom from getting soggy.  You may even want to line the baking sheet with foil to catch the drips and make clean-up simpler.

Broil the chicken 6 inches away from the broiler about 5 minutes per side until it's nicely blackened on the outside and the inside is up to temperature.  Set it aside for later.

While the chicken is cooking, fry up the bacon.  Try not to eat too much of it before it ever gets into the pasta salad.  Dry the finished product on papers towels and set aside for later.

Don't forget that we need some pasta, too!  Cook it up according to the package directions, leaving it on the al-dente side.  Drain well and set it aside to cool once it's done.

Now for all of that other stuff.  Chop the broccoli, cucumber, bell pepper, carrots, and cheese into bite-sized pieces.  I like to quickly blanch the broccoli for 30 seconds or so in boiling water to soften it just a touch before I chop it, but that's up to you.

The chicken and bacon should be cool enough to handle by now, so give those a good chopping, too.

Finally, it's time to put it all together.  You'll probably need a couple of large bowls for this - this recipe filled up the two largest bowls in my kitchen handily.  Combine everything, preferably leaving a little extra room at the top of the bowl so that you can stir the dressing in easily.

Speaking of dressing, we'd better make some.  Combine the mayonnaise, sour cream, and ranch dressing mix and stir well.  Give it a taste and adjust as you see fit - I added a little more garlic and some dried herbs.

Add your preferred amount of dressing to the salad and stir well to mix.  I like it fairly lightly dressed - there's enough good stuff in these bowls to be tasty all by itself.

Throw it in the fridge to fully chill and let the flavors marry a bit, and you're ready to serve.  This is a fantastic, summery main course, and so easy to prepare well in advance.  Enjoy!

Recipe: Creamy Ranch Pasta Salad
Prep Time: 10 Minutes | Cook Time: 20 Minutes | Chill Time: 1-2 Hours | Difficulty: Easy | Servings: 12-15
  • 16 oz Cavatappi Pasta
  • 1-2 pounds Boneless Skinless Chicken Breast
  • 1 pound Bacon
  • 3 heads Broccoli
  • 1 large Cucumber
  • 2 large Green Bell Peppers
  • 8 ounces Baby Carrots
  • 8 ounces Extra-Sharp Cheddar Cheese
  • 1 1/2 cups Mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup Sour Cream
  • 16 ounces Greek Yogurt
  • 1 packet Ranch Dressing Mix
  • 2 teaspoons Garlic Powder
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

  1. Cook pasta according to directions on package.  Drain well and set aside to cool.
  2. Rinse chicken and pat dry.  Season well with salt, pepper, and garlic powder then coat completely with Greek yogurt.
  3. Place yogurt-covered chicken on a wire rack atop a baking pan and broil approx. 5 minutes per side until blackened on the outside and done in the middle.  Set aside to cool.
  4. Fry bacon in a heavy skillet.  Dry well with papers towels and set aside.
  5. (Optional): Blanch broccoli 30 seconds in boiling water.
  6. Chop all vegetables and cheese into small, bite-sized pieces.
  7. Once chicken and bacon have cooled, chop into small, bite-sized pieces.
  8. Combine pasta, chicken, bacon, cheese, and vegetables in large bowl(s).
  9. In a small mixing bowl, combine mayonnaise, sour cream, and ranch dressing mix.  Adjust seasoning to taste and stir to mix.
  10. Add dressing to pasta mixture to taste and stir well to combine.
  11. Chill at least 1-2 hours before serving.  Serve cold.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Greek Zucchini Orzo

Kristin and I have been a bit bored by conventional vegetable-delivery methods, lately.  We needed a side for our Roasted Chicken and nothing quite seemed right.  I wanted to do something a little more interesting than a pile of steamed or roasted vegetables, and of course a little starch never goes amiss.  I decided to make something up, and my Orzo and zucchini invention worked out pretty well.

Zucchini was on sale, so we started there.  I chose Orzo as a starch because I think it's a really great textural element for a side dish, sitting right between pasta and rice and somehow capturing the best of both. The chicken had some Greek flavors - particularly oregano and lemon - so I decided to do the Orzo with a similar palette.  Ultimately, we ended up with a great, flavorful side dish that I'll definitely make again.

You'll need some orzo, obviously, and some zucchini.  The bulk of the flavor comes from lemon, garlic, oregano, thyme, salt, and pepper.  It's all held together by a little butter and some white wine.

Take a look at this wine bottle.  How cool is that?  The portrait is on the inside of the back label.  I am more than happy to judge a wine by its bottle, and this one won me over immediately.  It was a good pick, too - a mix of Argentinian Torrontes grapes with just a bit of Sauvignon Blanc.  Yum.

Okay, back to food.  Dice the onion, mince your garlic, and chop down your zucchini into bite-sized pieces.

Cook your Orzo to al-dente according to the directions on the box, and we'll finish it off with the rest of the ingredients.

Add all of the vegetable matter you just chopped up to a large skillet over medium heat with a little butter or olive oil, and saute until things start to get tender.  Add plenty of spices - the oregano, thyme, salt, and pepper.

When the vegetables are tender, add the Orzo into the skillet along with the juice of a lemon (a few tablespoons, if you're using pre-packaged juice) and half a cup or so of the white wine (stock works fine if you want to avoid alcohol).  Give it a good stir and let it burble away.  The al-dente Orzo and the Zucchini should absorb all sorts of flavor from the liquids.

When the liquid looks like it's mostly either cooked off or been absorbed, check your seasonings and adjust as necessary, then you're ready to serve.

Serve warm, topped with some extra herbs and/or a little Parmesan Cheese.  Enjoy!

Recipe: Greek Zucchini Orzo
Prep Time: 5 Minutes | Cook Time: 15-20 Minutes | Difficulty: Easy | Servings: 8-10

  • 12 oz Orzo Pasta
  • 4 medium Zucchini
  • Juice of one Lemon
  • 1 medium Sweet Onion
  • 1/2 cup White Wine
  • 3 cloves Garlic
  • 1 tbsp Oregano
  • 1 tsp Thyme
  • 1 tbsp Butter
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • Optional: Parmesan Cheese to garnish
  1. Cook Orzo to al-dente according to directions on package.
  2. Dice onion, mince garlic, and chop zucchini down to bite-sized pieces.
  3. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Add onion, garlic, and zucchini.  Season with oregano, thyme, salt, and pepper.  Saute over medium heat until vegetables are tender.
  4. Add cooked Orzo to skillet along with lemon juice and wine.  Simmer gently until liquid has evaporated or absorbed.
  5. Check and adjust seasoning as necessary.
  6. Serve warm, garnished with additional herbs and/or shaved Parmesan Cheese.