Anyone can be "the family chef". You just need good recipes and techniques! Chef Amy Fothergill shares her best recipes with you for quick and easy dishes with an emphasis on gluten-free.

Get information here about her cookbook, The Warm Kitchen: Gluten-Free Recipes Anyone Can Make and Everyone Will Love.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Macaroni and Cheese

I know it's very easy to open a box of macaroni and cheese. But I'm here to tell you homemade mac n'cheese can be made easily with minimal effort. Really. When I made this dish for a friend of mine when she came over for dinner with her kids, she said "Wow, my son really likes your macaroni and cheese. He usually doesn't eat this much." He's 13 months old by the way.

Another reason to make your own is economics. Compare the cost of this recipe to a box of macaroni and cheese. You are paying for a lot of packaging. I checked and a box of Annies is over $2.00 per box and you still have to add your own butter/milk. Also, the yield of this recipe is larger than a box. It's about keeping key ingredients on hand; that's the trick.

On another, sort of related note, you might remember that for over the last year, I've been battling with my daughter's skin, trying to figure out why she has eczema and trying to control it. She's been gluten-free, dairy-free and a "list of other foods"-free for a long time. I always feel bad for her. She's almost 3 now and literally in the last week, I have noticed an improvement in her skin. I had allowed her to eat something she wasn't supposed to have and did not see any reaction.

Tonight I was out to test the theory, as I have been for the past few days. I decided to make homemade macaroni and cheese with regular pasta. If this didn't throw her skin into itchy-overload, I don't know what would. And I used to make boxed macaroni and cheese. It's not that it's that bad but when you compare it to fresh, well, there is no comparison. The taste and texture are wonderful. But knowing how to make a good bechamel sauce helps as well as how to flavor it. The other trick is the timing so that you can get this meal on the table in almost the same amount of time as opening a box. Here is a quick step-by-step list:

1. Heat water.
2. Make roux while you heat milk.
3. Make white sauce.
4. Cut some veggies.
5. Add pasta to boiling water.
6. Shut heat off of white sauce; add cheese.
7. Add some veggies for the last 2-3 minutes of pasta cooking.
8. Drain pasta/veggies.
9. Stir cheese sauce and add to pasta/veggies (you might have extra sauce)
10. Dive in.

Honestly, once you do this once, you will be amazed at how easy it is. You could even make the cheese sauce in the microwave.

I was a good girl today and actually measured my ingredients. If you know me, you know I want you to cook from your heart and eye ball a recipe. If that's not possible (yet), follow this recipe and get a feel for how much is in 3/4 of a cup of cheese or 1 tablespoon of flour. It makes cooking much easier.

I'll have to report back whether my daughter had a reaction. So far, so good. Sorry I didn't take a picture today. The food was hot and we started eating before I could get the camera out.

I served this tonight with sauteed chicken tenders along with a spinach salad with avocado, toasted pine nuts and strawberries. That's what was hanging around. And you know, I didn't always eat like this. Many of my meals used to include bread, wine, a heavy salad dressing, floured chicken...I've learned to keep things simple and healthy. I keep good ingredients in the fridge and pantry so it's easy...ok, easier.

I hope you will try this and see what the family thinks. Please let me know how it compares to that box of Kraft or even Annies.

Amy's Stove Top Macaroni and Cheese (Mac n'Cheese)
Serves 3-4

1 1/2 - 2 cups of dry pasta
1 Tbl butter or margarine
1 1/2 Tbl flour
1 cup of milk (you can also use plain soy or rice milk)
Sprinkle of nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
Few grinds of black pepper
Sprinkle of dry mustard and garlic powder
3/4 cup of shredded cheese (I used a combination of cheddar, parmesan and a shredded Italian blend that you might use for pizza)
1 cup of cut broccoli (or 1/2 cup frozen peas or spinach)

1. Heat water in a medium pot on the stove. Make sure to use a cover so that the water boils quickly. Make sure there is at least twice the amount of water as pasta. If you have plenty of water, you do not have to add any oil to the water; it won't stick.
2. While that comes to a boil, place a small pot on the stove. Over medium to medium-low heat, melt butter. Add flour and whisk. This is your roux or thickening agent.
3. While that is cooking, heat milk in a glass measuring cup in the microwave until warm (1 minute works well). After roux has cooked for 2-4 minutes, slowly add milk to roux, stirring. Add spices. Continue to cook until slightly thickened. You might need to raise the temperature slightly.
4. The water should be ready by now. Once it is boiling, add at least 1 tsp of salt. Be careful because the water might spit a bit and burn you when you add the salt. Add pasta and stir. Set timer to 5 minutes.
5. Once white sauce (that's your milk sauce) has thickened slightly, turn off heat. Add cheese mixture and stir. Stir occasionally.
6. Once pasta has been cooking for 5 minutes, add veggies and continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes. Most pasta is done in 8-10 minutes depending upon the shape. Make sure to taste the pasta for doneness before you drain.
7. Once pasta is done, drain and add back to pan. Add cheese and stir to combine. Serve immediately.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Uno, Dos, Tres...Taquito!

When it comes to feeding my kids, I listen to them with a grain of salt. Well, what I mean is that I give them some say when it comes to their meals but I add my own twist to it, to make sure it's healthy. So, that day, while shopping with the 4 1/2 yr old, I asked him what he wanted for dinner. He said, enthusiastically, "Chicken taquitos!".

Sure it would be easy to pick some up from the freezer section but I thought to myself, all I really need is some chicken and corn tortillas. But then, since I was in my new favorite store New Leaf and feeling very inspired, I thought, why not add some black beans and quinoa?

A friend of mine recently asked me "Do your kids eat quinoa?" My answer was "Sometimes." Some times they will just eat it and some times they won't. But I keep exposing it to them.

My idea was that if it's mixed with chicken, black beans, seasoning and some cheese, he might not notice. And it's not that I'm trying to necessarily hide it from him entirely but if he eats it 1) the meal becomes that much more nutritious and 2) he is getting used to that flavor so that when I do serve it, he's more likely to eat it since he's had it before. It's all about strategy. And if for some reason he really didn't like it, I'd pick out the chicken and black beans for him.

When I got home and started preparing the meal, I looked around for more ingredients. I had some frozen spinach and corn as well as some sour cream. I realized the filling needed something to bind it together and the cream would do that as well as provide a nice flavor. The beauty of homemade taquitos is that you can add whatever ingredients you want. You don't like quinoa? Use brown rice. Vegetarian? Omit the chicken and just use more beans. No dairy? Try adding salsa or guacamole to make it moist. It's hard to go wrong. The other tip; make sure you add some oil/fat to the outside of the tortilla to make it crisp.

So now was the moment of truth. When these came out of the oven, nicely browned and crisp, I thought they looked great. But, would the children eat them? The youngest one didn't even look up. She just went for it. When my oldest started eating, he only ate the tortilla and managed to scrape the filling out. But, I didn't make a big deal about it. As we sat and ate, I thought, he is going to be hungry later. For whatever reason, even at 4 1/2, this still works. I offered to feed him. In my book, if a child will eat chicken, black beans, quinoa and spinach by way of me assisting, I have no problem with it. And in the long run, he polished off the whole taquito, quinoa and all.

Here's the recipe. I'll try to remember the best I can but it's hard to make a mistake. Make the filling and make sure it binds. Fill corn tortillas and roll. Bake. Pretty straight forward. I hope you try it and that everyone in the family likes it!

Chicken, Black Bean and Quinoa Taquitos

1 1/2 cups of cooked chicken (I used tenders, cut them up and sauteed them)
1 cup of cooked quinoa
1 can of Trader Joe's cuban black beans
1/2 cup of frozen spinach
1/2 cup of frozen corn*
1/4 cup of sour cream
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
Cumin, coriander, salt and pepper
Corn tortillas
Non-stick spray or vegetable oil

*Note-Since the quinoa was hot, I added the frozen veggies to the mixture and they defrosted on their own.

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Mix all ingredients except last two. Set aside.
3. Warm tortillas so they are more flexible. This can be done in a pan with oil, by wrapping in foil and placing in oven or wrapping in wet paper towels and microwaving for 30-60 seconds until soft.
4. Place a few tablespoons of filling in the middle of the tortilla. Roll up like a burrito and place seam side down in a pan, sprayed with non-stick spray or rubbed with oil. Once your pan is filled with taquitos, spray the top with non-stick spray or rub with additional oil to make sure the outside gets crisp.
5. Place in oven and bake until golden brown about 20-25 minutes. Cool slightly before serving.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Bean and Grain Crock Pot Soup

Some times when I food shop, I have to admit I just buy with my eyes (good marketing on someone's part). I'm trying to be better about using what is in the pantry even though it's against my Italian heritage not to have enough food stocked up for 6 months.

When I saw this bean and grain soup mix, I had to have it. There were lentils and barley and kidney beans, black beans, name it. So colorful and it just had HEALTHY written all over it. Well, not really but you know what I mean. So it went in the pantry, waiting for it's debut.

Friends were coming for dinner who are vegetarian and this seemed like a great reason to make this soup. Here's the trick; the soup mix contained both hard beans (like kidney and garbanzo) as well as barley and lentils. Each of these has different cooking times so I was a little worried how it would turn out. On top of that, I had plans during the day which meant it would be challenging to figure out how to cook this.

Then it hit me; the crock pot! I sort of felt like Doc from Back to the Future; ok, I watched it recently so it was on my mind. If my calculations were correct, this would work! My idea was to cook it at on high heat at first and then keep it on warm for a few hours to replicate the quick cooking. Long story short, it worked and I didn't even need the flux capacitor. The soup was delicious and the perfect consistency.

The trick is to saute and season the veggies first, add to the crock pot with plenty of water or broth and make sure it boils for at least an hour. This could be the perfect greeting after a long day at work. And make sure to have some pesto around to top it with (see the prior post) along with some good quality olive oil and freshly grated Italian cheese.

Crock Pot Soup

1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1-2 celery stalks, chopped
Olive oil for cooking
Other veggies like broccoli, zucchini, peppers, etc, chopped
Seasoning like pepper, thyme, oregano, garlic
1 qt of stock (vegetable or chicken) or water
1 can of diced tomatoes with juice plus 1 can of water
1 cup of bean and grain soup mix (or just uncooked beans like white or kidney)
Optional: 1 bunch of kale or spinach, washed and roughly chopped (or you can use frozen chopped spinach)
Optional: 1/2 cup of uncooked pasta or 1 cup cooked

1. Heat a large saute pan to medium. Add oil and then veggies along with seasoning. I usually start with the onions and while those cook, I chop the carrots. While those cook, I chop the celery, etc. I save the softer veggies like zucchini for last. The sauteing brings out such delicious flavors; I don't like to skip this step. However, you can make the soup by just putting everything in the crock pot.

2. In a crock pot, add the broth, can of tomatoes plus the water (this also helps to get the rest of the tomato out of the can so you get a better yield from the can), cooked veggies and bean/grain soup mix. Set to High for 2 to 2 1/2 hours and make sure the soup is on at least Warm for another 2-3 hrs.

3. When the cooking time is completed (or when you walk through the door), check the beans for hardness. If necessary, turn crock pot back to high to cook longer. Add more water if necessary.

4. About 30-60 minutes before you want to eat, raise temperature on the crock pot to High. Add rinsed kale or spinach and allow to cook. When the soup is simmering, add pasta. Or, if you have some cooked pasta in the fridge, you can also use that. Make sure kale or spinach and pasta is tender before serving. Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary.

5. Top with good quality olive oil, some freshly grated cheese and pesto if you have it. This is delicious served with some homemade wheat bread (look for that recipe soon!).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Best-o Pesto

I remember when I first moved to California. I had never heard of a Farmer's Market back east. Sure, we had farm stands but I grew up in the country. Back then, everything was organic; my neighbor was dropping off bags of zucchini she grew in her yard. Man, that makes me sound old. "Kids, when I was your age, grandma made me pick green beans and onions in the back yard."

Ok, I'm getting off the subject. So, I started going to Farmer's Markets here because I thought it was cool. I especially liked any dips or bread I could get. I did dabble with roasted beets on the encouragement of a farmer. I think that's when I started to "get it". Soon after, I'd start coming home with bags of fresh veggies to cook up.

Where I live now, there's a weekly Farmer's Market. I have to say, I've gotten quite good at what's in season, what's a good price and how to use what I've brought home. It's quite fun to go and sort of create dishes on the fly, just by being inspired by what's in a basket on a table.

Last weekend, I was planning on making some vegetable soup for some friends. When I walked by one booth and saw all of the herbs, particularly the basil, I thought "Hmm, that soup would be SO much better with a dollup of pesto." And that's how this all began.

I know. I could have just said that I bought some basil but I wanted to give you the backstory first. If you know me, you know there's always a story.

This is a great example of how simple ingredients are just simply delicious. Pesto is so easy to make. You can prepare it in a blender, food processor or even with an immersion blender. Follow the directions below and use it for pasta, a hearty soup, on bread, with tomatoes, for your tomato sauce, or on a sandwich. It will keep in the fridge at least a week (keep some olive oil on top and it will last even longer) and you can even freeze it.

As always, I hope you are inspired and I encourage you to taste the difference between this and store bought. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Amy's Pesto
2 cups of fresh, organic basil
1/2 cup pine nuts, toasted
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1/2 cup grated romano cheese (or 1 cup of either but use good, Italian cheese!)
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 - 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 - 1/2 cup good quality olive oil

Pulse basil in processor. Add all other ingredients. Add more oil unti the proper consistency of a paste is reached. Keep oil on top to keep fresh and prevent browning.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Lemon Caper Sauce

Grilled Fish with Lemon Caper Sauce on a Bed of Organic Arugula

Does this dish sound like something you would order in a restaurant? Well it might but you can make it at home without a lot of fuss. And you might think it strange but my 2 and 4 year old both ate the fish and sauce. The arugula was a little spicy for them but at least they tried it.

When I think about good food and what I like, I realize it’s generally simple. That’s my new motto. I don’t have time to be in the kitchen for hours. It’s got to be quick and easy. I have to admit, when I cook, I don’t often measure. I really do it because I don’t want to pull out the measuring cups or spoons, let alone have another thing to wash.
Let yourself go in the kitchen! Try to estimate by eye how much is a tablespoon of oil or half a teaspoon of salt. Look at a recipe and get the essence of the technique. Determine if a recipe is simple or just too complex. Sometimes I don’t follow the recipe but I use the ingredients. That works for me.
A friend of mine has recently moved to Spain for 2 years. She sent me an email the other day about a delicious lemon caper sauce her 8-year old daughter made. Apparently, it was so good, her other daughter, who is 10, was licking her plate. In the email, she included the ingredients but not the amounts. I had asked for the recipe but with the 9 hour time difference, I hadn’t received it yet. So, I did what I encourage you to do; I winged it (wung it?).
I had envisioned this sauce over fish but it would also work with chicken or even plain pasta. Earlier in the week, I had gotten some arugula at the farmer’s market. I spotted some nice white fish in the grocery store, and, shazam, this dish came together. I think my mouth started to water a bit, too.
When it was time to get dinner ready, I started with the fish. A little olive oil, salt and pepper, and a hot grill pan; that’s all I needed. While the fish cooked, I prepared the sauce. I finished the fish by placing a large pot cover on top to steam it a bit and make sure it was cooked through. I had already washed the arugula so it was ready to go. When the fish was done, plate assembly was easy: arugula, fish, sauce. The flavors went together so well. I was really in heaven. My husband barely looked up when he was eating, always a good sign of a tasty dish.
Ok, so lets give you that sauce recipe. That’s what you really need. I described the fish technique above. I also want to share with you one of my favorite products. I love using this lemon squeezer; it really gets out all of the juice and leaves the seeds behind. To get out even more juice, your lemon should be room temp. If you just pulled it from the fridge, place in the microwave for 10-15 seconds. Then, roll the lemon on the counter. Once you’ve done this, cut in half and get that juice out. If you don’t have an official juicer, squeeze the juice over your other hand to catch the seeds. Sure you have to wash your hands but they will smell very nice.
I hope you’ll try the recipe and most importantly, enjoy it as much as we did. I used to say to my cousin about cooking “Luke, use the force.” She didn’t think it was that funny. Find your inner chef. Just try it.
Laurel & Siena's Lemon Caper Sauce
Serves 3-4 servings of sauce
Juice of 1-2 lemons
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 - 1 tsp Kosher or sea salt
2-3 tsp of capers, drained
4-8 Tbl unsalted butter
Add lemon, garlic, capers and salt to a small pot. Bring to a simmer. Add butter, 1 Tbl at a time and whisk until melted. Add enough butter to taste or until proper consistency is reached. If you want less fat and more sauce, add broth (vegetable or chicken) and thicken with cornstarch if necessary. I don’t make this everyday; I like to use the butter!