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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Seriously Awesome Burgers

Last night I came home from work and the last thing I felt like doing was putting any effort into cooking. I knew we had some burgers in the freezer, so I pulled them out to thaw and decided tater tots for a side.

Classy, I know.

Once Brent threw them on the grill, I decided that I was just going to eat mine with cheese, mustard, and ketchup. No fancy pants toppings this time! Just a damn good and simple burger.

Until, I decided that bacon didn’t sound too bad…and if I was cooking bacon I could certainly take 5 minutes to sauté some crimini mushrooms because I need to use them up… and oh no, we only have one slice left of the good cheese, so why don’t I use up the goat cheese in there from that failed dish I attempted the other night… oooh I have a lonely little sun-dried tomato…I’ll make a goat cheese sun-dried tomato spread for it! That jar has been taking up way too much space in the fridge anyway.

And right there folks, is how I almost always get carried away with dinner. Sometimes I think there should a twelve step program of some sort for this type of behavior. But then…what would I share with you?

These little beauties were delicious and completely satisfied my burger craving. The burger was juicy, the bacon crispy, and the goat cheese sun-dried tomato spread was awesome. It was the perfect compliment to the burger and other toppings. I devoured these with no shame, juice dripping down my chin, and inevitably onto my shirt, which now is probably ruined. Not that this is anything new to me, I tend to always get something on me from either the cooking or eating part of the process.

With Memorial Day coming up, the spread would be a great and simple addition to your cook out. It seriously takes less than 2 minutes to whip together, and that includes pulling out the ingredients!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Make-At-Home Frozen Burritos

I have a dirty little secret.

But before I tell you what it is, here is the thing…I get burnt out on cooking some nights. As much as I love trying to come up with interesting new things to eat for dinner, there are days when I have no inspiration. Or maybe it was a crazy stressful day and all I really want is a margarita.

Either way, there are nights were I will eat frozen burritos for dinner.

Brent and I try to keep some frozen items stocked up for when we want a quick snack or lunch on the weekend. We try and mix it up most of the time, but recently Brent has developed a deep love for the frozen burrito, so they are almost always on hand. They are usually his “second dinner”. That is if he isn’t having a late night bowl of ice cream.

Side note: How is it that boys can eat whatever they want and not gain a pound? I swear if I had his eating habits, I’d double in size in less than a month.

Back to burritos! So this past weekend we ran out, and Brent asked me to put them on the grocery list. Instead, I decided that it was time to make them at home and see how it goes.

My personal belief is that anything you make at home will be healthier, and better for you, than what you may get in a restaurant or buying it pre-made. This does not mean by any means that I won’t get down with that stuff every so often; I just try to keep it to a minimum. To me, it’s all about balance and moderation.

I’m happy to say that I think these worked out perfectly. They froze fine and heated up without a problem. And they tasted pretty good too!

My favorite thing to do when I have a frozen burrito (or two) for dinner is to load it up with fresh veggies on top. After I heat them up and melt some cheese on top, I chop up whatever produce I happen to have on hand and toss it on. Add a little sour cream, salsa or my favorite Cholula and it’s ready to be devoured.

In this picture, I used radicchio, tomatoes, cilantro, scallions and Cholula. I’ve also topped them with mixed greens, spinach, arugula, red onions, and avocados to name a few. I will say that adding the veggies make me feel a little less guilty, and actually make it a more satisfying meal. And it’s ready in no time, so that is a definite plus on a busy or exhausting night!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Shrimp and Andouille Cajun-style Pizza

There are few things I love more than pizza and I love to experiment and come up with new topping combos. I’d guess we have pizza about once every ten days. And while we never tire of it, we do get burnt out on buying it. Once I discovered that out local grocery store sells fresh dough, it was on! Especially since I don’t have what I consider the proper amount of space, or tools, in my current kitchen to tackle making my own. Let’s face it… I don’t really have the patience for “letting things rise” either.

I’ve made many pizzas over the last few months hoping to share them with you. Unfortunately pizza is kind of a hard thing to photograph, but I was happy enough with these shots to share them with you.

Brent is always in charge of forming the crust when we make pizza. I’ve tried to figure it out, but he has experience doing it at a restaurant, so now I just delegate the job to him.

After I clean the countertops off thoroughly and threaten the cats with water torture treatment if they come anywhere NEAR it, Brent gets to work rolling, flipping, throwing flour all around, and stretching the dough out to the perfect shape.

Normally I have all the toppings set up to go as soon as he is done. For this pizza I did a Shrimp and Andouille Sausage pizza complete with two kinds of cheese, peppers and onions and a slightly spicy sauce. Prepping the ingredients is very easy, just be sure you slice the veggies as thin as possible – a mandolin is great for this! I cube the andouille up to be about the same size as the shrimp after I clean it, remove the shell and cut it into thirds.

I’m slightly obsessive about toppings being the same size. It's weird, I know.

Next it’s just time to shred some cheese and mix together the sauce. I went simple with tomato sauce with some added herbs, but you can just use your favorite brand!

Pop it into a piping hot oven and in less than 15 minutes, it’s ready!

I would have loved to use green peppers for some color, but Brent hates them so we went with yellow.
Use whatever color you prefer.

I think what surprised me most about this pizza was how the andouille gave it a lot of flavor throughout, but didn't overpower the other ingredients. The veggies were cooked just right with out being mushy or undercooked, and the shrimp was tender. I’ll definitely make this one again.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Baked Spinach and Sausage Stuffed Tomato

In general, I think the theory that our taste buds changed every seven years is true. When I was little I didn’t care too much for tomatoes, but now I like them for the most part. Except, I still hate the squishy guts inside. I love the idea of stuffing tomatoes and baking them till they are slightly soft. This is probably because I have a slight obsession with stuffing items with delicious concoctions. It’s safe to say that anything stuffed makes me happy. And if you pair something stuffed with any kind of dip or sauce, I have seriously died and gone to heaven.

Anyway, this recipe can do triple duty in your kitchen. It can be served as a main course, an interesting side dish, or if you use roma tomatoes, it can be a great appetizer. This makes 4 large vine-ripe or beefsteak tomatoes, but if you want to make it as an app, go with about 6 roma tomatoes and halve them.

Even though my cheese got a little too browned, I couldn't not share these with you.

Italian Sausage and Spinach Baked Stuffed Tomatoes
*Makes 4
(printable recipe)

What you need:
- 4-5oz loose mild Italian sausage
- 4 large beefsteak or vine-ripened tomatoes
- ¼ cup minced onion
- 1 small garlic clove, minced
- 1/3 cup frozen spinach, squeezed of excess liquid
- 1/3 cup breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup parmesan cheese
- ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ¼ teaspoon garlic salt
- salt and pepper

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Foodbuzz Event at Carrabba's Italian Grill

Over the weekend I was invited to participate in a Foodbuzz Tastemaker Event at a local Carrabba’s Italian Grill. This was such a wonderful opportunity to not only get a "behind the scenes" look at Carrabba’s and their food philosophy, but also the chance to meet with other Foodbuzz Featured Publishers. Brent came along with me for the experience.

Before I get started, let me give you a little background on Carrabba's. The first Carrabba's started in 1986 as a family restaurant in Houston. Several year's later, they partnered with the parent company of Outback Steakhouse and added several more locations. Today Carrabba's Italian Grill operates in over half of the U.S. with nearly 250 restaurants.

I've eaten at Carrabba’s many times over the years and honestly I've never been disappointed with their food. I think they are one of only two - maybe three - chain restaurants that have consistently good food that is seasoned perfectly and cooked well. After meeting with many of Carrabba's employees this past weekend, I realized that this is due to two simple factors - passion for what they do and fresh ingredients.

Our event was hosted at the Carrabba's Italian Grill at 700 N. Dale Mabry in Tampa, FL. Brent and I know this location well because it isn't too far from where we use to live.


Once everyone arrived and introduced themselves, we walked over to the open kitchen to watch a demonstration of pasta cooking techniques and pizza making.

Jay, Joel, and Josh lead the demonstration 
These guys had a wealth of knowledge and shared so many great tips on the best way to cook pasta.
Some highlights include:

- Always cooking pasta in clean, boiling water.
- Add salt once the water is at a full boil.
- They recommend cooking no more than one pound of pasta to one gallon of water.
- Use a spoon or ladle to stir short cuts of pasta, and a two prong serving fork for long pastas. Always use a spoon for filled pastas such as ravioli.
- Never rinse your pasta!

I think the best tip we were given was that when cooking long pastas, instead of dropping it right into your pot, you should swirl it around first to soften it.

They also recommend adding 1oz of salt to one gallon of water. I personally think that is too much for my taste, but to each their own.

During the pasta demonstration they prepared the above rigatoni for us to taste, as well as a simple pesto pasta and another one with their house red sauce. I believe it's technically called the pomodoro sauce... but don't hold me to that. I was a wee bit too busy eating at that moment.

Both of these pastas were simple, but very tasty. A side salad and a hunk of bread and I would be in comfort food heaven.

One seemingly small detail they shared with us was how they cut their boiling time for a pot of pasta from 20 minutes to 7 by changing the type of pot they use. Having worked in hospitality for years and seeing first hand how many restaurants don't care about "improving" on things that work "just fine", I really appreciated their approach and trying to find ways to make what they do more efficient.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Strawberry Bistro Salad

This is my favorite salad of all time. It has mixed greens, strawberries, walnuts, bleu cheese, tortilla strips, and raspberry vinaigrette. Now if you’re thinking that all those ingredients don’t sound good together - don’t worry, I was really skeptical myself the first time I tried it. When the waitress described the salad to me, I must have looked hesitant because she assured me it was tasty, and she was right. Years later, when I worked at Grillmarks as a bartender, I’d have to assure many guests too and I can’t recall one time they didn’t like it.

Such a pretty salad!

Side note: I don’t recommend going to work at one of your favorite places to eat; you will inevitably gain a minimum of 10 pounds. Trust me on this.

The “glue” that pulls all the ingredients together is the raspberry vinaigrette. I’ve never had another one like it. It’s sweet, tangy, and slightly thicker than your normal vinaigrette dressing. I’ve tried several store brands over the years trying to get one that was close, and failed miserably at home many times over attempting to replicate it. And then the other week, I happened to see a bottle of raspberry vinaigrette and the color was the closest I’d seen yet. (The color of Grillmark’s vinaigrette was PINK. Like really pink.) So I snatched it up and decided to make salads for dinner.

Strawberry Bistro Salad
*Serves 4 as side salad
(printable recipe)

What you need:
- 6-8 oz mesclun mixed greens
- ½ cup chopped walnuts, toasted
- 1/3 cup bleu cheese, crumbled
- 1 cup fresh strawberries, sliced
- 1/3 cup Marie’s Raspberry Vinaigrette
- 1 ½ tablespoon plain yogurt
- tortilla strips*
*My store has them in the same aisle as the croutons

What to do:

1. Start by toasting your walnuts in a dry sauté pan over low heat for about 6-8 minutes. Give them a toss every couple of minutes until fragrant. Core and slice strawberries.

2. Mix the raspberry vinaigrette with the yogurt. I did this to make it a bit thicker like the original.

3. In a large bowl, or on individual plates, combine greens, bleu cheese, walnuts, strawberries, tortilla strips, and drizzle with raspberry vinaigrette. Serve and enjoy.

Thoughts: Success! While the vinaigrette wasn’t exactly spot on, it was {thisclose} to being perfect. This is the closest I’ve gotten to date, and it definitely satisfied my craving. This is such a light and refreshing salad for summer. If you want to make it more of a meal, you can add grilled chicken or salmon. Both go beautifully with it.

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