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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

I (heart) food blogs and Web sites

I'm not sure what foodies did for new recipes before the advent of the Internet. I suppose they kibbutzed with friends for new ideas, pored over newspapers and magazines and bought up fundraiser cookbooks. All great methods. In fact, I will still buy up any fundraiser cookbook found at yard sales (the Tracy Fire Department Auxiliary's cookbook is a definite asset to any collection, as are any of the editions put out by the Hilmar Covenant Church or YLI). And I will always be a sucker for any newsstand magazine that advertises slow-cooker recipes (the slow cooker is a must have for any bariatric patient).

Since moving out on my own, I've been able to be more adventurous in my kitchen experiments. After all, I only have to worry about myself and my tastes. Trust me, I didn't get to weigh 335 pounds by being a picky eater. However, the Internet has really helped me broaden my cooking horizons.

For a while, I subscribed to a local food co-op. Getting produce boxes from food co-ops can be a little scary. You never know what your box might hold or what to do with it. That's where the Internet comes in. When I opened my box one week to find fennel, which I had only glanced at on the food network, I only needed to type in "fennel recipes" into Google before finding a pasta sauce recipe that not only used the fennel bulbs I had, but also leftover sweet potatoes from Thanksgiving. Instead of pasta, though, I served the sauce over spaghetti squash, another gift from the co-op box.

For my church potluck last night, I decided I couldn't just go with gobs of cookies and candy made from the bulging baking shelf of my pantry. I needed to have some "good food" to go along with it. I opted for a chicken stew from SimplyRecipes.com, which just might be the best food blog in existence. What I love most about SimplyRecipes.com is that the author resides in Sacramento, which means whatever is in easy and available for her is also in season and available to me. Realizing (thanks to the feedback of a few well-meaning friends) that the recipe I chose might be a little "out there" for church folk, I decided to also take a tried-and-true casserole in the form of Paula Deen's (of the Food Network's Paula's Home Cooking") shrimp and wild rice casserole. It was a favorite of my ex-husband's (though he always had me omit the bell pepper and onion), especially when I doubled the cheese.

The chicken stew, though, was my favorite. Chock-full of onions, tomatoes and super tender and moist chicken, it was every bariatric patient's dream. I would challenge any gastric-bypass patient who says he/she can't tolerate chicken to stick by his/her story after trying this dish. The chicken literally melts into the sauce, leaving a warm, hearty meal.

I should stop there, but I won't. I can't sign off without leaving you the recipes I'm speaking of.

Chicken Stew with Onions, Tomatoes and Dijon
(from SimplyRecipes.com)

I rarely ever make a recipe exactly how it's written. I put my own spin on just about everything. So, for this recipe, I used six chicken thighs and two bone-in chicken breasts. I also omitted the roasted garlic, though it sounds divine! The key, to me, is in the browning of the chicken. Get it good and crispy, because that adds complexity to the final product. (My favorite olive oil is Lost Dogs Farm of Tracy, Calif.) Though the recipe calls for it to be served with rice, I think it would be incredible over savory polenta, such as what Alton Brown recently made on an episode of "Good Eats" on the Food Network. For myself, I just mixed in some steamed zucchini.

Chicken Stew with Onions, Tomatoes, and Dijon

1 whole head garlic
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
One 3-4 pound whole chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces (2 breasts, wings, thighs, legs)
6 medium red onions (about 2 pounds)
One 28 to 32 ounce can good quality whole peeled tomatoes, drained
1 Tbsp fresh thyme or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
2 bay leaves
A pinch of chile powder
1/3 cup dry white wine
3 Tbsp old-fashioned whole seed Dijon mustard (or 1/4 cup regular Dijon mustard)

1 Preheat oven to 400°F.

2 Peel away the outer layers of the garlic bulb skin, leaving the skins of the individual cloves intact. Using a knife, cut off 1/4 to a 1/2 inch of the top of cloves, exposing the individual cloves of garlic. Place garlic head on a piece of aluminum foil. Drizzle olive oil over the garlic, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Wrap the garlic head with the foil and place in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes or until the flesh of the cloves are light brown feel very soft when pressed with the tip of a knife. Set aside to cool. (See how to roast garlic.)

3 While the garlic is roasting, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (with lid) or Dutch oven, on medium high heat. Rinse the chicken pieces in cold water then pat dry with paper towels. Season liberally with salt and pepper.

Brown the chicken pieces, starting them skin-side down, cooking them a few minutes on each side, working in batches so that you don't crowd the pan.

4 While the chicken is browning, peel and quarter the onions. Remove chicken from pan when nicely golden with tongs or a slotted spoon and set aside on a plate. Discard any fat and oil beyond about 1 Tbsp left in the pan. Put the onions in the pot and cook them until softened, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes.

5 Add the tomatoes to the pot, the thyme, bay leaves, and ground chile powder. Put the chicken pieces on top of the tomatoes. Pour in the wine and bring to a simmer. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for 40 minutes, stirring from time to time so that the vegetables don't stick.

6 After the garlic has cooled enough to handle, squeeze out the roasted garlic from the cloves into a small bowl and crush with a fork. Sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Set aside to serve with the chicken stew.

7 When the chicken has cooked, add the mustard to the pot and stir to blend. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook uncovered for 10 more minutes, or until the sauce is thick enough to cling to the meat. Remove bay leaves. Salt and pepper to taste.

Serve stew over rice or pasta, with the garlic paste on the side.

Serves 4 to 6.

Shrimp and Wild Rice Casserole
(from Paula's Home Cooking)

1 (8-ounce) package wild rice
1 pound medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 onion, chopped
1 (10 3/4-ounce can) condensed cream of mushroom soup
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar
Salt and pepper
Cook the rice according to package directions minus 1/4 cup water. Drain and cool.

Bring 2 cups water and 1/2 tablespoon salt to a boil in a medium saucepan and cook the shrimp for 1 minute. Drain immediately and set aside.

Heat the butter in saucepan and saute the pepper and onion until soft, about 5 minutes.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

In a large bowl, combine the rice, soup, 1 1/2 cups of cheese, shrimp and vegetables. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Mix well. Spray a 9-inch square aluminum cake pan or an 11 by 7-inch glass casserole dish with vegetable spray. Place the mixture in the pan and top with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Bake for 30 minutes, until bubbly.

Penne with Sweet Potatoes and Fennel
(from Quick Fix Meals with Robin Miller)

For this dish, I left out the pasta and used roasted spaghetti squash instead.

2 ounces uncooked penne pasta
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 fennel bulb, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch thick slices
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 cup milk (regular or lowfat)
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups leftover roasted sweet potatoes, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside. Keep warm.

Meanwhile, melt butter and olive oil together in a large skillet over medium heat. Add fennel, rosemary and sugar and cook 10 minutes, until fennel is tender and golden brown. Stir in the sweet potatoes.

Whisk together chicken broth, milk, and flour. Gradually add to skillet and simmer 3 minutes, until mixture thickens, stirring constantly. Add the pasta and stir to coat. Stir in Parmesan, parsley, salt, and pepper and cook until heated through, stirring constantly, about 3 minutes.

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