Good Ol’ Meatballs

I have a habit of buying ground beef or turkey, using a little bit of it, freezing the rest, and forgetting about it for…months? years? until the next time we move? I’m trying to be better about rescuing it before that point, though, and so when I found myself with some odds and ends recently — a little turkey, a little beef — I decided to thaw them overnight and see where inspiration took me.

It was still tomato season at the time (…shortest tomato season ever? I can’t believe how sad tomatoes look already!) and so inspiration took me to a good old-fashioned spaghetti and meatballs.

meatballs

I’ve used Bittman‘s basic meatball recipe as a starting point more than once, and it’s never done me wrong. This time, I split the meat between beef and turkey, whisked an egg in with the milk before soaking the bread, and substituted basil for parsley.

While we made the meatballs, I started a batch of Smitten Kitchen’s cherry tomato sauce — convenient because the meatballs could slide right into the oven for the last few minutes. We served it all over some Community Grains pasta, which was pretty darn tasty (if a little thicker and overall just grain-ier than we’re accustomed to).

Now I have about a dozen meatballs frozen in the fridge. What to do? Meatball subs? A not-entirely-accurate meatball bahn mi?

Good Ol’ Meatballs
(Adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything

Ingredients
1 lb. ground meat of your choice (I used 1/2 beef, 1/2 turkey)
1/2 c. chopped onion
1 thick slice white bread, torn into chunks
1/2 c. milk
1 egg
1/2 c. parmesan cheese
10-12 basil leaves, slivered
salt and pepper

Instructions
1. Preheat the oven to 350

2. Whisk the egg and the milk together. Soak the bread chunks in the mixture until soggy.

3. Gently squeeze out the bread and combine it with the ground meat, chopped onion, parmesan, basil, salt and pepper.

4. Form into 1-inch meatballs (I think I got 18 or so?)

5. Bake on a lightly greased baking sheet for 7-8 minutes.

Spicy Ginger Chicken

Since, oh, 2005, I’ve been talking about organizing my clipped recipes. I started saving recipes — mostly from magazines like Real Simple and Health — when I first started living on my own, back in 2004, and every time I’ve had a significant break since then (the holidays in 2006, before grad school in 2009, and spring break 2011, among others), I’ve imagined sitting down with the big blue folder full of disorganized, grease-stained, piling-up recipes and sorting and culling and sense-making until they were actually useful.

disorganized recipes

And last week, I finally did it.

organized recipes

The exercise turned out to be a fascinating journey through my years in the kitchen. From 2004 and 2005, I had a ton of “heat and dump” recipes — things involving pre-cooked this and pre-shredded that. From 2005 and 2006, when I first started getting serious about making food instead of giving up and going to Taco Bell at midnight, I had a ton of chicken recipes — funny in light of my dislike of cooking chicken. At some point, maybe late 2006, I started to collect dessert recipes. And 2009 to the present brought more elaborate recipes — things from Food and Wine and the New York Times, things involving lamb and immersion blenders and more than 45 minutes in the kitchen. I found the wrinkled original of garden lasagna, the first recipe I felt truly comfortable making; I rediscovered old favorites like chicken/apple/basil salad and sausage with polenta cakes and my first attempt at corn chowder. And I found a few things that made me nostalgic, like recipes from Sassy (1996!) and Jane and lovely party plans from Budget Living. (I kept them all.)

I also found a lot of things — er, most of the recipes I’d saved — that I’d never made. I suppose that’s the hazard of collecting recipes and not having a system to look through them: The things I made regularly rose to the top, totally obscuring the vast stack of goodies underneath. So for the binder’s first real spin, I picked out one of those long-ago-saved, never-before-cooked recipes, a Thai ginger chicken dinner from Real Simple (2006!).

ginger chicken

As I’ve mentioned before on this site, one of the things I want to do is become more comfortable trusting my instincts in the kitchen. I’ve come a long way since I first collected a lot of these recipes, but I still don’t always listen. This turned out to be one of the recipes where I should have trusted my instincts. Two cans of coconut milk seemed like a lot — like, a lot — and yet, it had been a while since I’d cooked with coconut milk and I wasn’t sure how much it would thicken up and besides, I wanted leftovers, didn’t I?

Well. Yes. But not liquid leftovers. One can would have been sufficient for sure.

I did make one good, fun tweak: I realized late in the game that I didn’t have any soy sauce, so I tossed in some Trader Joe’s sweet chili sauce instead. It added some more sweetness but wasn’t cloying (which I’d worried about considering the sheer quantity of coconut milk in the pan), and I added some extra salt to compensate.

The best part of this recipe, for me, was the puree of hot pepper, cilantro, and ginger that got added to the simmering pot. Chopping less, eating sooner? Works for me.

What’s below is the version of this recipe I wish I’d made. My dinner was fine, but I think this’ll be even better.

Spicy Ginger Chicken
(Adapted from Real Simple

Ingredients
1 lb. chicken breasts, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 onion, sliced
1 small eggplant, cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces
1 13.5 oz. can coconut milk or light coconut milk
2 Tablespoons chili sauce, soy sauce, or spicy addition of your choice
2-3 jalapenos or other hot peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
a few sprigs of cilantro, roughly chopped
1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
olive oil
salt
rice of your choice, if desired

Instructions
1. Cook the rice, if using. (Side note: I used basmati, because it was all we had in the house, and I followed a suggestion I saw online to soak it in cold water first, and wow, it came out bright white.)

2. Chop the eggplant, place in a bowl, and salt generously. Let sit for 15 minutes while you chop everything else, then drain, rinse, and pat dry.

3. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook the onion and the eggplant until soft, about 5 minutes.

4. While that’s cooking, put the cilantro, ginger, and hot peppers in a food processor with some olive oil and give them a couple of whirls until they’re finely chopped.

5. Add coconut milk, chili/soy sauce, and some salt to the saucepan and bring to a simmer. Add the cilantro mixture and chicken pieces and simmer until the chicken is cooked through.

Tomato Risotto with Sausage and Spinach

The second tomatopalooza took over my kitchen, I wanted to make a tomato sauce. But a little Googling on the way there led me on this delicious detour.

All I meant to do was see if anyone had tips for making Smitten Kitchen’s cherry tomato sauce with larger-than-cherry tomatoes. What I ended up doing was peeling and crushing tomatoes, simmering them in water, and standing over a steaming pot for nearly half an hour feeling my hand go numb from constant stirring and desperately trying not to sweat into my dinner.

And it was fabulous.

tomato risotto

I’ve made a number of risottos in my life, but I’ve never used anything but plain broth for the liquid. And because of that, I’m not sure I ever appreciated how fully the cooking liquid infuses into the rice. One minute, my rice was its normal white; the next, it was turning red from the inside out. With spicy sausage browned in the pot, onions so translucent I almost forgot they were there, and spinach wilted in at the last minute, this recipe has a lot going on — but the tomato flavor is clearly the star.

If I’d used canned tomatoes, I’m sure I would have had a lovely result much faster. My insistence on using fresh ones added both time and mess to the cooking (I mean, did you ever think about — I mean, really think about — how juicy a tomato is?). But there was something satisfying about doing it all by hand … and about watching 28 oz. of tomatoes magically disappear from my stash.

Tomato Risotto with Sausage and Spinach
(Adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Ingredients
28 oz. fresh tomatoes (or 1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes in their juices)
1 tablespoon olive oil
3/4 lb. sweet or hot sausage (I used hot), casings removed
1 small onion, diced
1 cup Arborio rice
1/2 cup white wine
5-6 oz. baby spinach
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper

Instructions
1. If using fresh tomatoes, bring a large pot of water to a boil. (If using canned tomatoes, skip ahead to step 4.) Cut a shallow X in the skin at the top and the bottom of each tomato. Put ice and cold water in a large bowl and set aside.

2. Working in batches, drop the tomatoes into the boiling water for approximately 1 minute, then plunge the tomatoes into the ice water. When cool enough to handle, the skins should slip off easily.

3. Roughly chop the tomatoes, removing the core. (If you don’t like tomato seeds, this would be the point to remove them; they don’t bother me much, so I didn’t make much effort to remove them beyond what naturally ended up on the cutting board.)

4. Place the chopped tomatoes in a large saucepan and add 3 cups of water. Bring to a low simmer and keep warm while you start to prepare the sausage and rice.

5. In a large saucepan (I used my Dutch oven) over medium heat, cook the chopped onion and sausage until the sausage is just browned. (I squeezed the sausage directly out of the casing into the pot and broke up the chunks with a wooden spoon.)

6. Add the rice to the onion/sausage mixture and stir, about one minute.

7. Add the wine and stir for another minute or until the wine is absorbed.

8. Start adding the tomato-water mixture to the rice. Start by adding about two cups of liquid, stirring gently until all the liquid is absorbed. Slowly add one cup of liquid at a time, stirring slowly and letting each cup absorb before adding another. This will take about 25 minutes, and you’ll be done either when all the liquid is gone or when the rice is creamy and tender.

9. Turn off the heat. Working in batches, stir in the spinach until wilted. Stir in the butter and parmesan, and add salt and pepper to taste. (I halved the butter from the original recipe, and I’m not actually sure any butter is necessary; if you try it without, report back!) Serve and sprinkle with additional parmesan, if desired.

Cornflake Buttermilk Chicken

OK, so the whole “I don’t cook meat very often” thing might be looking like a bit of a lie right now. The thing is, about a week ago, I ate some amazing chicken at Indie Mart. Chicken is probably my least-favorite meat to eat, so for me to describe it as “amazing” is really saying something. My friend speculated it had been marinated in buttermilk, and I had some buttermilk in the fridge, and that was all I needed to hear.

Cornflake Buttermilk Chicken

I thawed some of my Trader Joe’s frozen chicken in the fridge, then marinated it for about 8 hours in some buttermilk, green onions, garlic, and lemon juice. Dragged it through some crushed-up cornflakes and parmesan, baked for 40 minutes, and boom: amazing chicken. (OK, not as amazing as the Indie Mart chicken, but that was fried, and I can’t compete with that.)

I’ll be making this again this week. It was that good. (You know what else is good? Cornflakes straight from the box. I should probably stop that, if I want to have enough for this chicken.)

Cornflake Buttermilk Chicken
(Adapted from The Neelys)

Ingredients
Chicken breasts or tenders (I used four tenders, for two total servings)
2 green onions, chopped finely (white and green parts)
2-3 cloves garlic, crushed
1-2 cups buttermilk
juice from 1 lemon
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
1 to 1 1/2 cups crushed cornflakes
1-2 tablespoons fresh or dried thyme
salt and pepper
other spices to taste (I added a little garlic powder)

Instructions
1. In a large bowl, pour in enough buttermilk to cover your chicken (I used 2 cups of buttermilk in a relatively shallow bowl, and it was plenty). Add the crushed garlic, green onions, lemon juice, and salt and pepper.

2. Place the chicken in the bowl, cover, and marinate in the fridge. (Anywhere from 3-12 hours should work.)

3. Preheat the oven to 400.

4. Mix together the crushed cornflakes, parmesan, and thyme, and add any additional spices to taste.

5. Remove each piece of chicken from the buttermilk mixture and drag it through the cornflake mixture, pressing if necessary to make sure it sticks. Place the chicken on a baking sheet lined with parchment and sprinkle any leftover cornflake mixture over the top.

6. Bake for 40 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.

My leftovers reheated extremely well in the toaster oven, though they were a little drier on the second day (but still so much less dry than most chicken I’ve eaten in my life).

Spicy Soba Noodles with Sausage

I had never made soba noodles for myself until last summer, when I got inspired by one of Theodora’s soba noodle bowls and picked up some pre-cooked, cold noodles from the store. So easy, so fast, so tasty — and yet, they didn’t enter my regular rotation.

The other day, though, I was wandering my lovely local market and suddenly remembered those cold buckwheat noodles — what a simple, easy dinner they’d made on a night when I barely wanted to turn on the stove. I couldn’t find the pre-cooked ones, but I picked up a bag of uncooked noodles and figured I’d be able to handle making them cold on my own.

soba noodles

The inspiration for everything else was a pasta salad I used to make back in college — salami, cheese, red onion — but spicier and fresher. I spent a long time choosing the sausage, but once I picked andouille, everything else followed.

The one (minor) fail was the garlic oil I attempted to use as dressing. I went into this meal expecting to top the noodles with chili-infused olive oil, but apparently we ate it all — used it all? Do you really “eat” olive oil? — and so I tried to fake some garlic oil by cooking a few whole cloves of garlic in a few tablespoons of oil over low heat while I prepped the rest of the dish. It turned out OK but not very garlicky, and if I were to do this again, I’d make a vinegar-based dressing instead; the oil weighed things down a bit too much. The flavors meshed well, though, and only got better after a day in the fridge, so if you’re looking for a simple meal with serious leftover potential, this might be the ticket.

Spicy Soba Noodles with Sausage
Ingredients
Soba noodles, dry or cooked and cold; I prepared 4 servings
Red bell pepper, cut into chunks
3-4 green onions, thinly sliced
Sausage of your choice; I used two Aidells links
Red pepper flakes
Chili powder
Salt and pepper
Olive oil/vinegar/your choice of dressing

Instructions
1. Prepare the soba noodles according to the instructions on the package; once they’re done, drain in a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water to cool them down.

2. Cut the sausage into coins and grill or saute them until cooked/heated through. (You can cut the coins smaller once grilled; I ended up quartering mine.)

3. Rinse the pasta pot with cold water so it’s nice and cool, and dump the noodles back in. Add the cooked sausage, bell pepper, and green onions, and toss well. If you’re using any sort of dressing, add that now too.

4. Season to taste; I ended up using a lot of red pepper flakes and just a dash of chili powder, and I could have used more of both.

5. Eat for days. If you have time to pop this in the fridge before you serve, even better; I liked it best at its coldest.

Three Bitty Burgers

I’m not a vegetarian, but over the years, I’ve found myself cooking less and less meat. I don’t love the process, I don’t love worrying so much about safety, and frankly, I don’t love how boring some meat-focused meals can feel. (I’m the girl who orders four side dishes and no meat at the steakhouse.) But ground beef has always been a bit of an exception. I like burgers, I like chili, and I like that I can tell when the meat is done without a lot of stress.

After making cabbage rolls, I found myself with 1/3 of a pound of ground beef left over — perfect for a night when I was cooking only for myself. I hit on the idea of sliders pretty early, figuring I’d drag out all the spices and toppings I could think of and play things by ear.

Three bitty burgers

I ended up with these three bitty burgers: one classic-with-a-twist, one Mediterranean-inspired, and one savory-spicy.

Here’s the breakdown:

Classic with a Twist
In the patty
Ground beef
Garlic powder
Red pepper flakes
Salt and pepper

On the bun
Stone-ground mustard
Homemade pickled onions

Mediterranean
In the patty
Ground beef
Feta cheese
Greek seasoning
Salt and pepper

On the bun
Trader Joe’s artichoke and red pepper spread

Savory-Spicy
In the patty
Ground beef
Penzey’s Smoky 4s, aka my crack
Sweet-hot mustard
Salt and pepper

On the bun
Smoked gouda
Champagne mustard (…yeah, I have a lot of mustard)
Baby spinach
Sun-dried tomatoes

I had the highest hopes for the Mediterranean, and the feta in the patty worked well, but I liked the classic one the best. It tasted juiciest, which surprised me considering it was up against a burger that was about half mustard, and pickled onions just make everything more delicious.

Each served on 1/3 of a Dutch Crunch sandwich roll with oven-baked potato wedges, a side of sauteed spinach, and a few of the pickles I made the other week and don’t love (I think the problem was the cloves in the pickling spice; should’ve gone straight-up dill).

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

Last week’s CSA box included a gorgeous Savoy cabbage, and for whatever reason, I immediately became obsessed with stuffing it. Why? Couldn’t tell you. I’d never cooked stuffed cabbage; in fact, I’m not sure I’d ever even eaten it. But every time I opened my fridge and saw the huge, beautiful cabbage in there, I kept thinking, “I want to put beef in you.”

Beautiful Cabbage

That, friends, is how mistakes get made. And eaten.

I had a couple of technique guides in Smitten Kitchen and Bittman, which is how I learned that the rice goes into the rolls uncooked and that you blanch the cabbage first to make it pliable. Cool. Good. Got it. Except … how do you get this:

Cabbage roll filling

to stay inside a tiny, floppy cabbage leaf?

You don’t. Or, um, I don’t. Bittman recommended trimming the vein out of the cabbage, then trimming each half even more so it was a rectangle. Yeah, a rectangle the size of my middle finger, which is what I wanted to give this whole project about halfway through. I could get about a fingernail’s worth of filling in that teeny little piece of cabbage, and even that went squirting out the seam when I tried to ever-so-gently burrito-roll it up. Eventually, I gave up on slicing and went with one whole cabbage leaf per roll, vein and all, figuring a tough cabbage roll would still be better than no cabbage roll at all.

Somehow, it all worked out once the rolls got into the sauce. It’s true what the recipes say: they really do steam themselves into little packets of deliciousness. We had some extra filling that we tossed, unwrapped, into the sauce at the same time as the rolls, and it turned out to be a delicious addition — shocking to me because I can’t cook rice decently under normal circumstances, much less in a pot of bubbling ad-hoc tomato sauce. And the cabbage vein thing wasn’t really an issue; I mean, it’s not like we were eating tree trunks or something.

cabbage rolls

A pretty decent first attempt, at least. (Though maybe a larger cabbage next time?)

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls
Ingredients
Large-ish leaves from one large-ish cabbage
2/3 lb. ground beef
3/4 c. rice (I used white; brown presumably takes longer, or I guess you could cook it first)
One medium onion, chopped
One carrot, shredded
A couple of turnips or a parsnip, shredded
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
28 oz. crushed tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon chili powder (my crushed tomatoes were “fire-roasted,” so I ran with a spicy theme)
crushed red pepper flakes, to taste
olive oil
salt
pepper

Instructions
1. Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Blanch the cabbage leaves in the water a few at a time for about 45 seconds each, then drain and rinse with cold water.

2. Saute half the chopped onion, the carrot, the turnip/parsnip, and the garlic in some olive oil until softened.

3. In a large bowl, combine the uncooked ground beef and uncooked rice, mixing and breaking up any clumps with a wooden spoon. Stir in the veggies and season with salt, pepper, and chili powder.

4. In a large, deep saucepan or Dutch oven — I re-used the same pot that I’d cooked onion and carrots in — saute the other half of the chopped onion. Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper, and simmer.

5. While the sauce simmers, prep the cabbage rolls by any means necessary. For me, it was best to leave the vein in the cabbage, plop a couple of tablespoons of filling in the center, and roll the leaf like a burrito. If you have larger cabbage leaves, you might be able to cut out the vein at least partially. Do what works. It’ll be OK.

6. Place the rolls, seam-down, in the simmering sauce. Add any extra filling to the sauce, if desired.

7. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 30-45 minutes. If the sauce gets too thick, you can add a bit of water to it. If you’re smart, as I wasn’t, you’ll also occasionally stir the sauce so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of your pan.

Turkey Bolognese (and, Hello!)

I’m a baker. Type A. Precise. A cup of flour leveled neatly with a knife. A recipe, open in front of me, followed to the letter. A long internal debate over whether it’s OK to top off that cream that’s juuuuuust shy of two cups with a splash of milk.

I’m not a cook. I can cook, and I do cook, but I’m not a cook. The difference to me between the noun and the verb is that cooks have a feel for things. They know when a recipe needs a little of this, a little of that, more salt, a spice I never would have thought of.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t try, and recently, I’ve been trying more — helped along by my CSA delivery getting awesome for the summer, a general desire to stop eating out at restaurants all the time, and a penchant for taking on projects that are maybe just slightly above my actual kitchen abilities (like trying to pickle everything). I also got a new camera that finally takes decent pictures of food. Add it all up, and … we have a blog.

The other night, before I realized that I wanted to write about all of this, I actually made one of my first successful “a little of this, a little of that” recipes: a turkey bolognese sauce assembled from an assortment of things left in my fridge. I didn’t keep track of amounts, really, and I can’t promise I remember everything that went in, but that’s kind of the point of it, isn’t it? To add and add and mix and add until it tastes right?

More to come. For now, make some pasta and top it with this.

Totally Made-Up Turkey Bolognese Sauce
Ingredients
1/2 lb. ground turkey
a bunch of tomatoes, chopped (I used six small-ish tomatoes)
as much onion as you like, chopped (I used half of a really big one)
stock/broth/water (a cup should be plenty)
tomato paste (a tablespoon or so)
a bell pepper, carrots, celery – whatever other veggies you have around
splash of white wine
oregano
basil
salt
pepper
olive oil
your favorite Italian seasonings

Instructions

1. In a large skillet, saute the chopped onion in some olive oil until it starts to soften. Toss in any other hard veggies you might have (carrots, celery, etc.)

2. Add the turkey, breaking up any chunks, and cook until it starts to brown

3. Toss in the tomatoes and stir; they’ll start releasing juices pretty fast. I also added my bell pepper along with the tomatoes.

4. This is where it gets very “just do what looks right”-ish. I added a bit of stock and a splash of wine and stirred till it all combined

5. Season as you’d like. I started with the tomato paste, stirred it in, and then grabbed whatever Penzeys bottles were nearby. I even tossed in a splash of sherry vinegar for some reason.

6. Turn the heat down and simmer for a while. I let it go for 30 minutes before checking on it, and most of the liquid had already evaporated, so you might want to go even lower with the heat or simmer for a shorter amount of time.

7. Eat! I boiled some pasta, added this sauce and some shredded gouda, topped it with bread crumbs, and popped it in the oven for a little while for more of a baked pasta feel, but I think it would be delicious on anything.

This made enough sauce for four generous servings of pasta.