Oven Roasted Tomato & Pepper Pasta

For one reason or another, I have been on a veggie roasting spree. I came up with this recipe one afternoon, when I saw that the bowl of cherry tomatoes sitting on my kitchen counter looked like they didn’t have more than a day left in their life span, and I recalled that red pepper sitting in my fridge that could use a culinary rescue asap. Once you’ve assembled your vegetables together and placed them in the oven, you can sit back and relax- ok, or clean the house, do the laundry, bathe the children, etc- until they’re done roasting. Chop some basil, boil some water, cook your pasta, and you are good to go. During the winter months, when summer heirloom tomatoes are a distant memory, grape and cherry tomatoes tend to be sweet and ripe, which is why I tend to have them on hand to use in salads and just as snacks. This dish is quite easy on the pocket with fabulously delicious results. Then, again, it’s usually the simpler things in life that are (and taste!) better.

1 lb. (box) of pasta, whatever shape you prefer
1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves or quarters
1 pint grape tomatoes, sliced in halves
1 red pepper, seeds removed, chopped roughly
10-12 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole
medium handful of fresh thyme stalks (optional)
1 large handful of fresh basil, torn in pieces by hand
1/2 c. olive oil
1/3-1/2 c. chicken stock
2 Tbl. butter (optional)
salt, pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese, for grating

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Meanwhile, in a large roasting pan, place all your sliced tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and thyme (if using). Add the olive oil and sprinkle the vegetables with salt and pepper. With your hands, toss the vegetables, making sure everything is coated nicely with oil. Pour the chicken stock into the pan from one corner, as you just want the liquid to remain at the bottom of the pan and not remove all the spices and oil from your vegetables. Place the pan into the preheated oven and allow the vegetables to roast for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until the tomatoes and peppers’ skins are wrinkled and browned nicely, and you begin to smell that lovely roasted smell wafting from your oven. From time to time, while the veggies roast, check to see if you need to shake the pan a bit to loosen any pieces that may be sticking to the pan, or if you need to add any more oil or liquid.

While the vegetables are roasting in the oven, bring a large stock pot of salted water to a rolling boil. About 10 minutes before your veggies finish roasting, begin to cook your pasta. When the pasta is cooked al dente, drain it, making sure to reserve a bit of the cooking water (about a cup or so). Toss in everything from your roasting pan, making sure to remove any of the thyme stalks, if you chose to include this ingredient. Add the butter and torn basil. Give everything a few good stirs. Adjust the seasonings, and if you need some more liquid in the sauce, add some of the reserved pasta cooking water. This dish is fantastic on its own, but if you crave something heartier, you could always include a few meatballs on the side.

Weekend Fried Rice

On the weekends, you may have to throw a fabulously complicated dinner party. However, most weekends are my time to “relax” a bit and not worry about getting the dishwasher unloaded from the night before, a load of laundry started, and escorting my son to school, all before 8:15 am! A leisure morning of pancakes and eggs, along with a late morning shower are all in order. I also don’t enjoy grocery shopping on the weekends. (Well, except for going to the farmer’s market!) And that usually leaves my fridge full of fantastic left-overs for lunch and a number of odd ingredients to throw together for an early evening weekend meal.

After an unusually warm January day in New York, filled with train rides downtown and afternoons spent in the playground, I was left with little time to throw together something for dinner. Luckily I had a few ingredients in my fridge, which allowed me to create a fantastic fried rice. It’s always a good idea to try to stock your pantry with a few items you enjoy, so when you are pinched with time, or mere idleness, you have the ability to whip up something easily that, at the very least, tastes fantastic.

I tend to stock my fridge with sweet peppers and fresh herbs and my pantry with coconut milk, soy sauce, sesame oil, fish sauce, and various spices, such as cumin, curry, turmeric, and coriander. Most likely you have some left-over meat in your fridge, just waiting to be incorporated into a new dish. And if you don’t, no worries! You could always make a strictly vegetarian fried rice. The following recipe is what I had on hand today, but they are simply a guideline. Feel free to incorporate whatever you may have lying around your kitchen. And by all means, feel free to alter the amounts of each ingredient to your liking. I tend to put a splash of something here and there while cooking fried rice, without exactly measuring, so if you happen not to have a certain ingredient, you can always exclude or substitute it with another.

Yield: 4 adult dinner portions

1 1/2 c. jasmine or basmati rice
1 c. chicken stock
2 c. water
1 Tbl. butter, or oil
2 strips of bacon, heritage breed/organic preferred, chopped into very fine pieces
3 green onions, thinly sliced on a diagonal
2-3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 2-inch piece of ginger, grated
1 red bell pepper, preferably organic
1/4 c. frozen (or fresh) peas
8 oz. coconut milk
1 egg, beaten
1/3 c. peanut oil
1 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. whole corianer seeds, ground
1 tsp. sesame oil
1 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. oyster sauce
2 Tbl. organic, low-sodium soy sauce
splash of rice vinegar
small squirt of rooster sauce
large handful of fresh coriander, chopped finely

Cook the rice with the chicken stock and butter. You may omit the chicken stock if you prefer, however it does give the rice another nice element of flavor, which the water can not provide. Keep covered; set aside.

Meanwhile, prepare each of the above ingredients, setting them aside until you are ready to heat your pan. Preferably, use a wok, however, if you don’t own one, you can still prepare a delicious stir fry with a large skillet. Add about 1/3 c. of peanut oil, or other vegetable oil, to your prepared, hot pan. Once hot, add the bacon (Note: if you are using another type of meat, such as a left-over steak or chicken, add the meat in at the end, just to heat through.) and allow to cook on medium-high heat. After about 2 minutes, add the onion, garlic, ginger, and dry spices. Add the chopped red pepper and allow it to cook for 1-2 mintues. Add the coconut milk, sesame oil, rice vinegar, fish, oyster, and rooster sauce. Once you begin to smell the aromas of the spices, after about 2-3 minutes, add the beaten egg, being careful to contanstantly stir it until it has incorporated nicely. Add the peas and green onions, and give the dish a good stir or two. Add the cooked rice and soy sauce. Stir to combine. Take a taste and add whatever seems to be missing.

And that’s it! A nice, simple, tasty dish to satisfy just about anyone after a busy weekend afternoon. Enjoy the weekend and happy eating!

Black Bean Burgers

I am very blessed to have the opportunity to send my son to a wonderful public school, which is a member of the Wellness in the Schools lunch program. The other day my son came home from school, and told me that the resident program chef had come into their class to make an all-bean chili, which he said tasted great! I love to see children so excited about good food and cooking! I only wish that every school child had the opportunity to eat good food at lunch and be educated about what one can do in the kitchen with just a little know-how.

In my son’s backpack that day were three recipes incorporating beans, which, to my surprise, my son was eager to make for dinner. When a child is excited about something, particularly regarding food, you should always go with it. So, the following night, I decided to try out the recipe for black bean burgers. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical while I was preparing the meal, as I am not the greatest fan of veggie burgers, but much to my surprise, everyone in the family thoroughly enjoyed these meatless patties.

Luckily I had some tzatziki in the fridge, which I spread on the buns. Because the bean burger’s texture is smooth, I wanted to add some crunch to it, and the cucumbers in the tzatziki worked nicely. I also whipped up some guacamole, which added another nice element of flavor. However, you could simply slice some avocado and place it atop the burger, along with some sprouts or lettuce of your choice. This really is a delicious alternative to a regular burger for vegetarians and omnivores alike. Plus, since there’s no cost of meat involved, this meal would definitely fit into our $8 meal category for a family of four.

Yield: 5 burgers (or 8 small sliders)
2 15 oz. cans black beans, drained and rinsed
5 Tbl. olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled
zest of one lime or lemon
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. cumin
2 Tbl. fresh cilantro
1 egg, beaten
1/3 c. bread crumbs
6 brioche hamburger buns
3/4 c. grated cheese; cheddar, Monterey Jack (optional)
salt, pepper to taste
1 small squirt of Rooster sauce* (optional)

In a food processor, place one torn up brioche bun, the breadcrumbs, oil, cilantro, garlic, zest, and spices. Process until smooth. Add the drained beans, but only pulse the processor until everything combines. You want to leave some of the beans slightly intact. Remove the mixture from the food processor and place into a medium-sized bowl. Incorporate the beaten egg and cheese. At this point you can top the bowl with plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to cook the burgers.

Form the bean mixture into flattened patties; set aside. In a large sauté pan, with medium-high heat, add a glug or two of olive oil and allow the oil to get hot. You can test the oil by flicking a few drops of water into pan, and if it sizzles immediately, it’s time to add the burgers. Place two to three burgers to cook at a time, depending on the size of your pan. Sauté the burgers for about 3-4 minutes on each side. If the burgers are browning too quickly, turn down the heat.

Meanwhile, slice the brioche buns and toast them for a couple of minutes. When the burgers finish cooking, place onto a bun, and add any condiments you plan on including. I tend to serve this with a simple side of salad greens and homemade french fries. Happy Eating!

*Rooster sauce is a type of hot sauce, also known as, Sriracha Chili Sauce. It has a picture of a rooster on the front of the bottle, thus the referral of the Rooster in its name. It is a lovely, barely noticeable addition to numerous dishes, such as pizza sauce. Most grocery stores carry this item in the foreign spices and sauces aisle.

$8 Meals: Whiting Fish

What?! A fish dish for $8 dollars? Yes, you read correctly. There are numerous types of fish which are relatively unknown and unpopular and, therefore, very easy on the wallet. Take, for instance, whiting. It’s always sold whole and has a somewhat ugly physical appearance, which, at first glance, turns the average fan of those denizens of the deep to the opposite side of the fish counter. Their loss; your gain. Whiting is absolutely delicious, and a good choice for someone who is inexperienced in cooking whole fish, as there are very few bones to deal with. Whiting has a very interesting, triangular backbone, which pulls away from the meat of the fish easily after it is cooked.

Whechoosing a fish to buy, always look for visible signs that the fish is fresh. Just because you are told that the store received the fish in the morning, doesn’t always mean that they are as fresh as they could be. For instance, the eyes should be clear, without looking cloudy, and blood in the eyes and around the gills is also a good sign that they are fresh. Of course, the fresher the fish, the less “fishy” it should smell, so feel free to ask for a sniff before you buy.  I have yet to see a farmed whiting being sold in the supermarket, so rest assured that you will be buying a wild and sustainably caught fish. At my local fish monger, whiting comes in at $3.99/pound. For a family of four, two large, or about four small whiting will work nicely as a main dish, which usually amounts to about $6-$7. I always ask for the insides to be cleaned, and leave the head and tail in tact.

If you happen to be a whole fish cookery novice, do not fear! Once you do it, you may never go back to cooking those dried-out fillets of fish ever again. Not only is cooking a whole fish a less expensive option, as the price per pound is much less than a fillet, the meat also tastes better, as the bones release a delicate flavor and help to cook the fish from the inside out, saving you from having to concoct a fancy sauce to replace some much-needed moisture. Also, the meat  retains all its natural juices, producing a moist, succulent fillet. You can stuff the cavity of the fish with just about anything you fancy. I tend to add slices of garlic and whatever fresh herbs I have lying around in the fridge.

Usually I make some sort of rice dish to accompany the whiting, such as a mung bean and rice combination. However, if you prefer, you could simply make a salad and serve it along with some fresh bread. I hope you take this opportunity to try what may be to you a new fish and a new cooking method. We would love to hear your comments. You can always post a comment directly onto this post, or write to us at: twodancingbuckeyes@gmail.com  Happy eating!

Yield: 4 main course portions

two 2.5-3 lb. whiting (or four 1 lb. whiting), cleaned with head and tail in tact

handful of fresh herbs, such as tarragon, thyme, parsley, or dill

2-3 cloves garlic, sliced

1 lemon

olive oil

pinch of dried oregano (optional)

salt, pepper

Preheat the oven to broil. In an oven proof pan or tray, place your fish upside down, with inside open. Sprinkle the cavity with salt and pepper. Place the sliced garlic and herbs inside the cavity and fold the sides of the fish back down. Lay the fish on one side, sprinkling the outside with salt, pepper, and dried oregano. Splash a bit of olive oil onto the skin. Flip the fish over to the other side gently, as not to spill out the contents of the cavity. Repeat seasoning and oil. (With most fish, I usually slice the skin with two diagonal cuts to facilitate the cooking process, however, because whiting is such a small fish, and the skin is very thin, I do not perform this particular step.) Gently pour some water into the bottom of the pan, or tray, but do not pour directly onto the fish, as all your lovely seasonings will wash off.

Place the fish in the broiler. After about 2-3 minutes, open the broiler and check on the fish. If it has started to brown, baste some of the cooking juices onto the fish with a brush. Squeeze some fresh lemon juice onto the fish. Allow to cook for another 3-4 minutes before flipping the fish over. I usually perform this task with a spatula and a spoon, but however you can accomplish this step while keeping the fish in tact, I say go for it! If there is not enough water in the pan (about 1/2″), pour some more water into it. You want to have some of those delicious cooking juices to spoon over the cooked fish. Allow the new side to cook for another 2-3 minutes, basting when the skin begins to brown and bubble. After another 4-5 minutes, the fish should be cooked through. Take a fork and insert it into the flesh. If it goes in easily, the fish is done.

$8 Meals: Use it or Lose it Soup

We are back with another fine $8 meal. (Actually this dish may come in under $8, considering that you aren’t going to be buying any ingredients you don’t already have lying around in your fridge.) “Use it or Lose it Soup” is composed of all those slightly neglected veggies on the verge of spoiling in your fridge. Please don’t freak out on me…I am certainly not asking anyone to use slightly moldy, slimy veggies. Perhaps slightly wrinkly, but certainly not squishy! I often am an overzealous shopper at the farmers market, leaving me with a few vegetables or fruit that need attention by mid-week.

The last time I made this soup, I happened to have a zucchini, some mushrooms, a few carrots, a few stalks of swiss chard, an onion, and some garlic on hand. But feel free to experiment. Honestly, it really doesn’t matter what you have on hand. I also incorporated some amaranth, which is a tiny, high protein grain. I love to add it to soups and stews because it retains its crunchiness even when cooked in liquid. If you have some chicken stock handy, it also makes a nice addition to this soup, but it certainly can be left out, creating a strictly vegetarian dish.

I also added some turmeric, which provides a lovely rich yellow color to the soup. Turmeric is a natural cleanser of the body and an immune system stimulator, and may even aid in a faster metabolism. Just make sure that you wipe up any drippings while cooking, as turmeric does stain clothing and countertops easily. While it does provide color, its taste is minimal, making it a great healthy addition to many recipes without compromising taste. Of course, if you like the taste of curry, it is another great addition to the “Use it or Lose it Soup.”

1 large zucchini, grated
3-4 mushrooms, finely chopped
3 large carrots, peeled, halved, and chopped
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
3-4 stalks swiss chard, de-veined (remove the thick stalk) and chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, peeled
3 bay leaves
1 heaping Tbs. turmeric (or other spice of your choice)
salt, pepper to taste
10-12 c. water
1/4-1/2 c. olive oil

Heat a stock pot, or large casserole dish on medium-high heat. Add the oil. Add the mushrooms, carrots, onion, and garlic. Stir to coat with oil and allow the veggies to soften, about 3-4 minutes. If you plan to use turmeric or curry, add it to the cooking vegetables, as these spices need to sauté before adding any water. Add any grain you may be using, giving another good stir to the pot. If you are using grated zucchini, add it to the pot. Add the salt, pepper, swiss chard, and bay leaves. Add the water (and  optional chicken stock). I usually boil my water prior to adding it to the soup so the cooking process doesn’t halt in any way. Give the pot another good stir or two, cover, and bring down the stove range to low. Allow the soup to gently simmer for about 30-45 minutes.

When the soup is finished cooking, taste it to make sure the seasonings are to your liking. You can always add more salt at the end, but if you put too much in at the beginning, you most certainly can not take it back out! Feel free to add some chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley or cilantro, which gives the soup another great dimension of color and flavor. Serve with some warm, crusty bread and a cheese of your liking. Happy, healthy, (and slightly cheaper) eating!!

And I’m back….with $8 meals

Phew…..I’m back home from my yearly stint in Greece. My sincere apologies for not writing as much as I would have liked. Fortunately, my comrade kept things going smoothly while I was away! I hope that some of you were able to give the Greek pies and stuffed veggie recipes a try. But if not, surely there will be many more dinners to prepare in the future.

I am sure that many of you have experienced, in the last few economically trying years in America, having to pinch a penny here and there. And while this economic slump is now a global problem, we can all still do our best to eat fairly well while saving money. Of course, it’s nice to splurge from time to time and buy an expensive cut of meat or fish, but with a little know-how, it is possible to regularly make fantastic family dinners on a budget.

One key to saving money with food is to learn not only which general food products are inexpensive, but also which high-quality food products are inexpensive. Simply because an item costs more than another does not mean that it is better. For instance, usually a familiar cut of meat or fish is more expensive than another less known. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the less known one is worse. Many fish, such as skate, are not widely popular in the United States and, therefore, not priced as highly. (And, believe me, skate is delicious!) Be adventurous, and try something new — you may just find a new love.

Yet another way to save money with food is making sure to use whatever leftover ingredients you may have remaining after you cook a dish. For instance, the following the dish calls for fresh basil. Of course, when you purchase fresh basil, it is in a rather large quantity, and since basil really does not last long unless the roots are intact, and you place the bunch into water, you may be better off making the leftover portion into some homemade pesto, which will provide you with another quick and easy supper option in the future. You most likely have the ingredients lying around your home to produce a fantastically frugal meal and not even know it. Rummage through your cabinets or pantry to find a quick and easy solution for dinner. Some rice, beans, an egg or two, and perhaps a can of coconut milk have limitless possibilities. So use your imagination and incorporate some of those leftover items lingering in your kitchen.

During my stay in Greece, I had the opportunity to visit with a lovely friend of mine, who is Italian, and learn some of her wonderful recipes. One of which, I will share with you now and fits into my $8 meal category. Of course, you may be able to make this meal for even less, but here in New York City, food isn’t cheap, so $8 seems pretty good to me. I don’t believe you can even feed a family of four at McDonald’s for that much, but since I never step foot in those types of establishments, I could be wrong.

Pasta with Fresh Tomato and Basil Dressing

Yield: 4 dinner portions

1/2-3/4 box of pasta (fusilli, gemelli, angel hair, or whatever tickles your fancy) 
1 c. olive oil
15-20 grape tomatoes, torn by hand into quarters
3 stalks worth of fresh basil leaves
2 small cloves of garlic, halved
fresh pepper, salt to taste

Pecorino cheese for grating

Place a medium-sized bowl inside a sink (believe me, the tomatoes will squirt, and by placing the bowl into the sink, clean-up will be much easier!) and tear the tomatoes into quarters with your hands. Remove the basil leaves from their stems, and either tear by hand into small pieces, or chop with a knife, and place with the torn tomatoes. Add the sliced garlic. Sprinkle with fresh pepper and some salt. Add the oil. Don’t be afraid to add what may seem like too much oil. Apparently, this is the secret to this dish, according to my Italian friend. So go ahead and add an extra glug or two! It’s healthy for you! The left-over seasoned oil is fantastic for bread dipping.

Allow the tomato mixture to sit in the oil, occasionally stirring, for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare a large stock pot with boiling, salted water. Once the water comes to a boil, add the pasta and allow to cook for approximately 8-10 minutes, depending on the shape of the pasta. (If using fresh pasta, which many grocery stores now offer, cook time will reduce significantly to about 2-3 minutes.)

Drain the pasta. Melt 1 Tbs. butter in the stock pot in which you cooked the pasta. Add the drained pasta. Remove from heat and thoroughly coat with the melted butter. Empty the pasta onto a large dish or bowl. Remove the raw pieces of garlic, if you so desire. Top the pasta with the fresh tomato basil sauce. Grate a generous portion of Pecorino cheese atop the pasta and give the dish a few good twists of fresh pepper.

A fantastically delicious, easy-on-the-pocket meal. Do you have any deliciously frugal meals on your family’s menu? We would love to hear from you. We’re gathering and testing more $8 meal recipes, and would love to post something of yours, so write us at: twodancingbuckeyes@gmail.com. Happy Eating!