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Sunday Gravy in a Crock Pot: Shortcut or Sacrilege?

October 25, 2013 Entrees, Menu, Pasta 2 Comments
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A few weeks back I was faced with one of the toughest cooking challenges I’ve ever had to make since starting this blog. It was a beautiful autumn Sunday afternoon, and my wife and I had plans to take our kids to meet up with friends at a neighborhood Fall Festival. We also had a huge craving for a nice pot of Sunday gravy, which we haven’t made in a while. When a hankering for Sunday gravy comes along, there is no turning back.

Knowing that we would be out of the house for a good few hours, spending the time needed to tend to a pot of gravy wasn’t an option. But I was still determined to somehow enjoy my favorite Sunday meal, so much so that I already bought the cans of tomatoes, the beef, pork and veal for the meatballs, and the loaf of crusty Italian bread. With my back up to the wall, I made the crucial decision….I was going to attempt to make my Sunday gravy in a crock pot.

Still a bit shaken and nervous about my decision, I reached out to my Facebook friends to get their opinions. My friend Lorraine Rannali, the Gravy Wars queen, thought I was crazy. Even my cousin – my own flesh and blood – was shocked. But I was determined to conquer my fears and figure this one out.

We’ve all used a crock pot to serve up meatballs at a family party. But this wasn’t just a quick reheat…this was building from the ground up. If you step off of the meatball merry-go-round and think about it, you’re only using a different heating element to warm up a pot. Already I was feeling less nervous, and it was time to get cooking.

The first step that I take when making my Sunday gravy is to heat up some oil and garlic, and then add my tomatoes. Knowing that the crock pot wouldn’t produce the heat needed to warm up the oil, I used some common sense and came up with the practical solution – just heat up some oil and garlic in a small pan over the stove and add it to the tomatoes, Now we’re rolling!

I started by adding my cans of tomatoes to the pot, seasoned it up as I normally would, and then added the heated garlic and oil. The house is smelling good already! I already had the meatballs baking in the oven, and once they were done, I plopped them into the tomatoes and in true old-school fashion (I worked every old-school trick I could think of), I added some of the meatball oils to the pot for a little extra flavor.

Now it was time to head out and hope for the best. I set the pot to the low setting, and off we went to paint pumpkins and stuff scarecrows. Three hours later, we returned and I slowly but anxiously opened the front door. We were greeted with the most beautiful, fragrant smell that any Italian and Italian-American home would be proud of…the smell of Sunday gravy.

Yes friends, you can indeed make Sunday gravy in a crock pot. By following your own traditional recipe, and heating up your oil and garlic in a separate pan, you should have no problems and will not taste a difference. You will have to scale back on the amount that you’re making, as crock pots are much smaller than a regular sauce pot. If you’re making Sunday gravy for a large crowd, leaving the house is probably the furthest thing from your mind anyway!

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Apple Bacon Harvest Risotto

October 8, 2013 Entrees, Menu No Comments
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A few weeks back, I posted a review of Harpoon Pumpkin Cider (the verdict: not so good). I purchased the cider as a six-pack, so I have since been kicking around ideas on how to put the remaining bottles to good use without simply dumping it all down the drain. One of my favorite dishes that I like to prepare this time of year, particularly on a Sunday spent at home, is a nice pot of risotto featuring seasonal ingredients and flavors. I’ve already put together a Pumpkin Amaretto Risotto, which is one of my favorite recipes on my blog. But this gave me an idea on another seasonal favorite of mine. Since the main ingredient of cider is apples, I though it would be nice to play up on the apple angle. From there, I started thinking of other ingredients that would work well with apples. I immediately thought of  a harvest salad, and quickly came up with smoked bacon, walnuts and gorgonzola cheese. After a bit of research, I found a risotto recipe using apples, bacon and bleu cheese, and white wine and apple cider vinegar as the liquid base. With just a few minor adjustments, particularly using the cider in place of the wine and vinegar, and throwing in some allspice for an extra kick, I put together a dish that I was really happy with. The risotto was very filling and full of wonderful autumn flavors and texture. It’s a perfect recipe for this time of year. If you are a fan of risotto and the fall season, and if you have about 45 minutes of uninterrupted kitchen time available to you, give this one a try. If you don’t have apple cider on hand, I’m sure that the white wine and apple cider vinegar combination would work just as well.

Apple Bacon Harvest Risotto
inspired by a recipe found at betterrecipes.com

4 Strips Thick-cut Bacon, cut into ½” slivers

1 tbsp Olive Oil

2 Golden Delicious Apples, peeled and diced

2 Shallots, peeled and minced

4 cups Low-sodium Chicken Stock

1½ cups Arborio Rice

1 12 oz bottle Hard Apple Cider
(you can substitute cider with 1/2 cup Dry White Wine + 2 Tbsp Apple Cider Vinegar)

¾ tsp Kosher Salt, divided

½ tsp Fresh Ground Black Pepper

1 tbsp Thinly Sliced Fresh Sage Plus a Few Leaves, for garnish

3.5 oz Gorgonzola Cheese, crumbled

1 tbspn finely chopped Walnuts

Dash of Allspice (to taste)

 

Place the bacon in a large saute pan and cook over medium heat until golden, rendering most of the fat. Use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon to a paper towel and drain all but one tablespoon of fat from the pan. Add the olive oil to the bacon fat in the pan and saute the shallots and apples over medium-high heat until softened and browned in spots, 5-6 minutes. Season mixture with 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Meanwhile, heat the stock over low heat in a small saucepan until it comes to a simmer, then adjust heat to maintain a low simmer.

Add the rice to the saute pan with the apples and shallots and cook, stirring constantly, 2-3 minutes, until rice becomes translucent at edges. Add the cider (or wine and vinegar) then cook, stirring constantly, until absorbed by the rice. Season mixture with a second 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Add a ladle of simmering stock and cook, stirring frequently, until absorbed. Repeat additions of stock, adjusting the heat to keep the risotto simmering but not at a raging boil, until rice is just tender, about 20 minutes. Season with pepper, then remove from heat, add sage, reserved bacon, the final 1/4 teaspoon salt, goat cheese, walnuts and allspice, then cover for 2-3 minutes. Give a final stir and serve immediately, garnished with sage leaves.

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Grilled Cinnamon Sweet Potato Chips

August 1, 2013 Appetizer, Entrees, Menu No Comments
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There is nothing more rewarding about summer cook-outs than to be able to prepare your entire meal, start to finish, on the grill. One of my favorite side dishes that I like to make on the grill – whether I’m serving chicken, meat or fish – is a good, old-fashioned sweet potato. Now, if you’ve cooked sweet potatoes on the grill, you know that a little extra time and patience is needed. Just as if you were baking them in the oven, you are sure to be looking at a good 30-45 minutes before the potatoes are perfectly cooked and are ready to eat.

To cut back on some of cooking time, I came up with a little trick that I now use whenever we are planning to grill sweet potatoes. By slicing the potatoes first, then tossing the slices with some olive oil and spices, you end up with delicious, crispy sweet potato chips. They are easy to prepare, cook within 15 minutes, and they are a fun dish that even your kids will enjoy. I prefer using spices and flavors that really enhance the natural taste of a sweet potato – cinnamon, brown sugar and a little maple syrup are what I like best. You can serve them along side a main course, or enjoy them on their own as a crispy grilled snack!

Grilled Cinnamon Sweet Potato Chips
Makes approx. 2-3 servings

2 nice-sized sweet potatoes, scrubbed (peeled or unpeeled, your preference)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tbspn brown sugar
1 tspn cinnamon
1/2 tspn salt
2 tbspn maple syrup

You will also need a lightly sprayed grilling basket or a grill pan, just as I suggested using in my Grilled Tomato Basil Salad recipe.

Preheat your grill to medium-high heat.

Using a sharp knife, carefully slice the sweet potatoes into thin slices, about 1/8″-1/4″ thick (you do not want them to be paper-thin). Place the sliced potatoes into a large bowl. Drizzle the slices with olive oil, enough to lightly coat each of the slices. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon and salt; stir well. Drizzle the mixture with the maple syrup; stir well again.

Place the grilling basket or pan onto the grill over direct heat. Carefully pour the chips into the basket, stir well using a wood or metal spoon or spatula. Close the grill lid, but check and stir frequently to avoid the chips from burning. Once the chips start to brown and blister, carefully move the basket to an indirect heated area of the grill. Continue to cook and stir until the chips are evenly cooked and slightly crispy, (approximately 10-15 minutes total cooking time). Carefully remove the chips from the basket with a spoon. Plate and serve.

Be sure to use a grilling basket to help evenly cook the potatoes.

Be sure to use a grilling basket to help evenly cook the potatoes.

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Grilled Pumpkin Pecan Burgers

July 9, 2013 Entrees, Menu No Comments
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Over the past few years, grilling season has become one of my favorite times to cook. It allows me to be experimental (grilled stromboli, anyone?), it’s a good excuse to be outside, and it’s an opportunity to enjoy a nice, cold, refreshing beer in between ‘flipping’ and ‘rotating’. If you are a regular follower of my blog, you are probably well aware that one of my all-time favorite ingredients is pumpkin. Which is why, as I was putting together a list of ideas that I would like to prepare on the grill this season, I decided that I somehow needed to get pumpkin involved. Now, I know that we are still a good few months away from pumpkin season, and fresh pumpkins aren’t easy to come by just yet anyway. But with a 5 day weekend to help celebrate Independence Day, I figured there was no better time to get a little creative. What I came up with was my own spin on a pumpkin burger.

There are actually a handful of pumpkin burger recipes available on other websites, and they all use white beans as the key ingredient along with pumpkin puree. However, none of the recipes utilized traditional pumpkin spices. Instead, they went with corn, peppers and other usual suspects found in a veggie patty. Because I wanted to stay true to the pumpkin taste, yet have it hold up as burger, I put together my own version, using pumpkin puree, chickpeas (any white bean would work well), traditional pumpkin spices, and some tarragon to add a little savory flavor. To keep with the pumpkin theme, I also cut back heavily on the recommended amount of breadcrumbs and compensated with ground pecans – which, of course, go well with any pumpkin dish! Assuming that some sort of condiment would be needed, and neither ketchup or mustard would really work well here, I found a recipe for a maple balsamic vinaigrette– again, relying on maple as a standard pairing with pumpkin.

I realized while making these that the end result could go either way – very good, or really bad. I am happy to say that they came out VERY GOOD! What I ended up with was a hearty veggie burger with definite, but not overpowering, hints of pumpkin. They grilled up quickly, but I am sure that they would also work well if cooked on a stovetop or in the oven. I’m also thinking that a little chopped jalapeno would give it an extra welcoming kick, but definitely not necessary.

So, whether you are a fan of pumpkin, or just a lover of veggie burgers, I suggest you give this one a try. And if it’s too early in the season for you to consider pumpkin-anything, I guarantee these will be a big hit come autumn time!

Grilled Pumpkin Pecan Burgers
Makes 6 burgers
1 15.5 oz can chick peas (or any type of white bean)
1-1/3 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 tspn allspice
1/2 tspn nutmeg
1/2 tspn ginger
1 tspn cinnamon
1 tspn tarragon
1 tbspn chives
1 egg
1-1/2 cups finely grounded pecans
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
salt and pepper to taste

Combine beans, pumpkin, spices, tarragon, chives and egg in a food processor. Mix until well combined. Fold in pecans and breadcrumbs, season with salt and pepper. Gently scoop a generous handful and shape into a patty (makes a total of 6 patties). To help hold the patties together, place in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour, or in the freezer for 15-20 minutes.

Place the patties on a well-oiled grill over medium heat. Once the patties start to brown and show grill marks, flip. Remove patties when both sides are equally browned. Serve on a bun or over a salad, drizzle with Maple Balsamic vinaigrette.

Maple Balsamic Vinaigrette
(Courtesy of allrecipes.com)
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup maple syrup (adjust measurement to your liking)
2 tspn dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup extra virgin olive oil

Place vinegar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper into a blender. Pulse to combine, then add the olive oil in a steady stream with the motor running.

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