A Romantic Weeknight In, Featuring Buitoni Lobster Ravioli

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Once upon a time, I spent a weekend in Hyannis Port. I sat at a sidewalk cafe, basking in the July sun and trying to not look ridiculous as I cracked open the lobster I had ordered for dinner. I had no idea what I was doing and it was very hard to not make a mess (I had stubbornly refused the bib that the waiter had politely offered.) Then, out of nowhere, I saw Ted Kennedy walking down the street. Eating Ben and Jerry’s. And suddenly I felt very silly. What was I doing struggling with a stupid lobster that had next to no meat in it when there was a Ben and Jerry’s less than a block away? For the rest of the dinner, I could only concentrate on two things: “OMG Ted Kennedy is in town” and “I’m so getting ice cream when we’re done here.”

And that marks the last time I was ever able to think about lobster without also immediately thinking about Ted Kennedy. OK, OK, it also marks the last time I ever ate a whole lobster. I mean, why bother? They’re good, but only because they’re drowning in butter. They’re a pain in the butt to eat, not elegant at all, and you’ll finish dinner still starving since you only actually ate about 3 Tablespoons of food. Other full-sized menu items with lobster in them though? Like Connecticut-Style Lobster Rolls or Lobster Risotto? Sign me up. Pairing that lobster with pasta, in Lobster Mac and Cheese or Ravioli? Even better — much more lady-like to eat and much less chance of leaving the dinner table still starving.

Which is why I was so excited to see that Buitoni’s new line of frozen dinners includes a shrimp & lobster ravioli. I had been searching high and low for this product for weeks, when I received an email from Foodbuzz asking for people to host a dinner party that pairs one of the new entrees with a vegetable side dish. Score! I immediately knew what I wanted to propose: I’m not really one for dinner parties and something about lobster ravioli seems so sexy to me that it seemed obvious to use the product as the basis for a quick and easy romantic weeknight in. Paired with a special yet simple-to-make salad dressed with homemade champagne vinaigrette and served with a glass of crisp champaign, this is the kind of meal that demands you turn the TV off and actually talk to each other. The whole meal can be prepared in 20 minutes (and with just one pot) and the price can’t be beat. They make it so easy that there really isn’t an excuse not to have a nice dinner at home. Why not celebrate a special occasion (oh,say, a tuesday) with a great meal like this?

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Click to continue reading my thoughts on Buitoni’s Shrimp & Lobster Ravioli and for my vinaigrette recipe –>

Cajun Jambalaya with Okra, Andouille and Shrimp

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The other day, I was thinking about the way I used to eat. Back when I was in college and shortly after I graduated. Let’s just say it wasn’t very healthy or very delicious. Looking back, I think there was a period of time where I just completely forgot that I knew how to cook a decent meal. Plus, I couldn’t really be bothered. Like a lot of people, I had the misconception that cooking a real dinner out of real ingredients would be too expensive and take too much time. So we’d boil a box of pasta and mix it with a jar of sauce and some sausage. Or we’d try to be “healthy” and make a chicken stir-fry, but we would totally ruin it by using store-bought marinades that were loaded with sugar. For a special treat, we’d buy a box of zatarain’s mix and make jambalaya.

I don’t miss the other stuff at all, but I do kind of miss the jambalaya. And with Foodbuzz pledging to donate $25 to the Greater New Orleans Foundation (helping fishermen who were effected by the oil spill and their families) for every Gulf-Inspired post this weekend, it seemed like the perfect excuse to make it. Of course, I wasn’t going to resort to using a box – I know better than that now! (And a quick look at the back of the box confirmed my suspicions — 21% of your RDA of sodium? MSG? Sodium dioxide?? No thanks!) No, this jambalaya is 100% real food and 100% real flavor. Sure you have to spend a few minutes chopping vegetables, but other than that it really isn’t any more difficult or time consuming than the boxed stuff. And the final product is so much healthier and so much more delicious that there really isn’t any excuse to take “shortcuts”!

Looking for more Gulf-inspired flavor? How about a nice, steamy bowl of gumbo? Gumbo is very similar to jambalaya, but it’s prepared as a soup enriched with a roux. In gumbo, the rice is cooked separately from the other ingredients and added in the final step instead of cooking along with everything else and absorbing all of the flavors.

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Click to get the recipe for Cajun Jambalaya with Okra, Andouille and Shrimp –>

Frozen Hazelnut Hot Chocolate

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Have you ever had a frozen hot chocolate? It’s one of my favorite summer treats. They’re icy and cold – like a cross between a milk shake and a slushy. Frozen hot chocolate might seem like an oxymoron, but these really do taste like hot chocolate and not at all like a regular chocolate shake.

You can make them with your favorite hot chocolate mix, but I like to make mine with milk and cocoa powder. If you decide to use a mix instead, keep in mind that it will get diluted by the ice. Adding in some melted chocolate chips helps it retain an intense chocolatey taste.

I love chocolate and hazelnut together and I decided that frozen hazelnut hot chocolate sounded great. Instead of adding in melted chocolate, I added Nocciolata organic hazelnut spread. Nocciolata is one of the products presented at the recent Fancy Foods Show, and they sent me a jar to review/play around with. The spread is very similar to Nutella, but it’s organic. It’s also thinner. At first I didn’t know how I felt about that – I like the thick, frosting-like consistency of Nutella. But then I realized it means that the Nocciolata is really easy to spread….meaning you can cover more surface area with less spread and save yourself some calories. It also meant that it blended very easily into this frozen hot chocolate and didn’t all end up in one blob.

I like that the ingredients are simple: sugar, hazelnut paste, sunflower oil, skim milk powder, cocoa powder, cocoa butter, soy lecithin, and vanilla flavoring. That’s all. I think that the hazelnut flavor is also more pronounced in the Nocciolata than it is in Nutella, and the spread isn’t quite as sweet. It’s definitely not something you want to be eating every day, but it does make a very nice treat.

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Click to get the recipe for Frozen Hazlenut Hot Chocolate –>

Orichette with Caramelized Fennel and Summer Vegetables

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It’s no secret that I love fennel, but I’ve been absolutely obsessed with the thought of making caramelized fennel ever since I first read about it over on The Tipsy Baker’s blog months ago. I requested a copy of Ad Hoc at Home from the library and patiently waited for what seemed like forever to get the recipe. And then I had no idea what to make with it. I mean, I’m not exactly a meat and potatoes kind of girl. I don’t do side dishes. And as presented in the book, caramelized fennel was most definitely a side dish. But then I had an idea: pasta. When I’m short on recipe inspiration I always turn to pasta, throwing in a combination of whatever looks good at the grocery store and whatever I have in the fridge. Caramelized fennel seemed like it would be a great jumping-off point for a summery vegetable pasta. And it was.

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In addition to the fennel, I used a combination of eggplant, summer squash, red onions, and peas. I tasted the vegetables on their own and they were so delicate and fresh that it seemed like a shame to cove them up with a heavy sauce so I decided not to, and instead dressed the pasta with a little bit of ricotta and a touch of pesto (I had originally planned to use garlic and olive oil). It was perfect! I really liked the creaminess that the ricotta added — when you stir it into the hot pasta it melts and creates a light coating that reminds me a little of mac and cheese. The pesto perked the dish up without taking it over; you could tell it was there, but it certainly isn’t a “pesto” dish by any means. Really it’s just… good. Good when you first make it. Good the next day. Good hot. Good cold. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of this one!

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Click to get the recipe for Orichette with Caramelized Fennel and Summer Vegetables –>

Marvelous Moroccan Chicken from Sally Bee’s The Secret Ingredient

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When I was approached about doing a review of Sally Bee’s The Secret Ingredient ($17.90 on Amazon), I was a little hesitant. The book was originally published in England, which isn’t exactly known for its amazing food. Plus, the recipes are heart-healthy and I was afraid that might mean that they would be bland. But her story had me intrigued, so I agreed to accept a copy.* Boy am I glad I did — this book has quickly become one of my favorites!

In 2004, Sally Bee was working as a writer and a British television personality when she suddenly suffered three major hart attacks in the span of one week. She had never smoked, didn’t drink, and was generally healthy and fit, but she found that she had been born with a heart defect that had gone undetected her whole life. To make a long story short, she wasn’t expected to survive, but she did! In order to keep her health up, she needed to pay very close attention to what she ate — but she didn’t want her kids to “grow up thinking a diet of mung beans and spinach was normal.” So she learned how to cook heart-healthy meals that were also enjoyable and “normal.”

The recipes in The Secret Ingredient focus on fresh fruits and vegetables and are bursting with flavors, thanks to the generous use of herbs and spices. The dishes in the book are fast and easy to make and don’t require any ingredients that you can’t find in your neighborhood grocery store. Since the recipes focus so heavily on fresh foods, you don’t have to worry about needing ingredients that are only available in England. I also really like that Sally Bee has a similar philosophy to me when it comes to not totally eliminating ingredients that have a reputation of being “unhealthy.” In moderation ingredients like butter, cheese, and red meat can add a ton of flavor to a dish without rendering the whole dish off-limits. Sally Bee includes small amounts of ingredients like these in her recipes; she also makes a note on each recipe to identify whether it’s an “everyday” dish or a “treat” that should be limited to once a week. The recipes are also accompanied by absolutely gorgeous full-color photos.

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I tested out the recipes for the “Marvelous Moroccan Chicken” (Shared below), the “Spicy Couscous,” and the “Healthy Spring Vegetable Risotto” all three meals were fresh, delicious, and easy (and cheap!) to make. The risotto was packed full of vegetables and was very filling — it also had some pesto stirred in, which was wonderful and a trick that I’ll be using often! The flavors in the Moroccan Chicken were unlike anything I’ve ever eaten before, but we both loved it! The warm spices in it were amazing and the whole house smelled wonderful while it cooked.

Of course, there are a few negatives, but they’re really more mild annoyances that anything. The majority of the recipes require using the oven — which is fine most of the year, but not really an option in the current heat. I also felt that the dessert chapter was a little too long — some of the ideas in it looked nice, but if I’m going to have dessert, I don’t want fruit. I want dessert. So while it’s nice for the healthy options to be included, I doubt I’ll ever make anything from that chapter. There are also a few things that are weird just because the book was originally published in England: metric weights are listed first and some ingredients are referred as they are known over there (for example zucchini is “courgette” and cilantro is “coriander” — though the American English names are given in parentheses). Also, the risotto could have used a little salt (although that would have been pretty inappropriate for a heart-healthy cookbook!)

But, the most important question always is Would I Buy the Book? Absolutely. The recipes are easy enough to be followed by beginning cooks, but are full of inspiration for more advanced cooks who want to use them as a jumping off point for their own creations. The ingredients are healthy and real; the final dishes are simple but elegant. And the photos are stunning. Let me put it this way — for me, flipping through this book is like flipping through a “Healthy Delicious” cookbook… are at least its everything that I would want a cookbook like that to be. ;)

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Click to get the recipe for Marvelous Moroccan Chicken –>

Duck and Shitake Lettuce Wraps with Cashew Sauce

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The July 2010 Daring Cooks’ Challenge was hosted by Margie of More Please and Natashya of Living in the Kitchen with Puppies. They chose to challenge Daring Cooks to make their own nut butter from scratch, and use the nut butter in a recipe. Their sources include Better with Nut Butter by Cooking Light Magazine, Asian Noodles by Nina Simonds, and Food Network online.

As long as you have a food processor or a powerful blender, nut butters are a cinch to make — not very challenging at all. What I did find challenging was deciding on what kind of nut I wanted to use and coming up with a creative dish to incorporate it into. Cooking with nut butters isn’t new to me, but I typically use them in dishes like these udon noodles with sweet and spicy sauce. And while that type of dish is delicious, I was looking for something a little lighter in this hot weather. I originally anted to make a macadamia nut butter and use it in some sort of Hawaiian/Indonesian fish dish, but I had already planned two other seafood-based dinner for this week and thought that a third would be overkill.

I remembered that I had some duck in the freezer, and I had been wanting to make lettuce wraps for a while so that seemed like it would be perfect paired with a cashew butter. It was a great choice — the cool, crisp lettuce kept that rich duck from seeming to heavy and the sauce was incredible! It was creamy and sweet and just a little bit spicy, with some rich notes from the soy sauce and sesame oil. Thinned out a little bit more (maybe with a little bit of lime juice?) the sauce would make a fabulous salad dressing. I’m torn over whether I want to eat my leftover cashew butter on toast or make the dressing and have a huge salad. I might just need to buy more cashews and do both….

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Click to continure reading Duck and Shitake Lettuce Wraps with Cashew Sauce –>