3 Dips a Dipping...

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Life with an obsessive buyer.

Well, I guess that’s the view from hubby, JuanCarlos’, seats. I buy things; be it material scraps, vintage dishes, glassware, and even food ingredients with big ideas. Sometimes with no specific ideas at all, I just love how they look and I’ll figure it out later. Maybe that is what I should have called this blog. Buy it Now - Figure it Out Later.

In the looking good category, I’m often tempted by the olive bar at specialty stores. Or the condiment and cheese aisles. Who wouldn’t? They are stocked with alluring foods. So, it’s no wonder that when you open my fridge you will encounter jars and containers of what JC likes to call stragglers. Annoying stragglers, to be exact. We differ greatly in our view points. I love having these food items around because they come in handy in a pinch. On the flip side, my husband finds these types of jars, containers and “dangling participles’ quite annoying. The main reason: he doesn’t have much use for these ingredients, hence the questioning as to why we need so many of them. Which often leads to him needing to shift, maneuver around and rejigger them in the fridge. Of course, I see the absolute need for these, but I’m willing to consider his point of view; me as condiment hoarder for the ‘just in case’ moment.

In an effort to keep the peace around the holidays (at least that is what I’m telling him), I decided to make him happy and clean the fridge from condiment craze. Yet, we all know the real reason. I’m a serial something from nothing, experimentalist. I can’t help myself from looking at ingredients and seeing what they could be. And what perfect timing, as we look down the barrel of the final few holiday parties and gatherings left in the year, a trio of dips comes in handy. Dips are not just useful for dipping, but great to spread on sandwiches, or on the base of pizza or stuffed breads, dollop on a salad or tacos, or dang near anything else you can think of.

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Here are 3 dips for dipping. Or spreading or whatever you want to name them, for use in whatever way you choose.


Avocado & Sour Cream Dip

Ingredients
1/2 c avocado, cubed
1/2 c sour cream
1/4 c scallions + 1 T for topping
1 garlic clove, rough chop
1 T parsley
1 t lemon juice
1/2 t salt
1/4 t pepper

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Instructions
In a mini blender, buzz up the parsley, scallions and garlic first. Then add the avocado and sour cream. Add lemon juice, salt and pepper. Buzz again and taste for seasoning. Easy, breezy.

Chop up the scallions and garlic first. It helps to blend them up better.

Chop up the scallions and garlic first. It helps to blend them up better.

Chunks of avocado give it a creaminess.

Chunks of avocado give it a creaminess.

Fresh parsley and lemon give this dip a zip.

Fresh parsley and lemon give this dip a zip.

Avocado & Sour Cream dip. Creamy and tangy.

Avocado & Sour Cream dip. Creamy and tangy.

Roasted Pepper & Goat Cheese Dip

Ingredients
1/2 c marinated roasted red peppers
2/3 c goat cheese
1/4 c walnuts, roasted

Instructions
Roast the walnuts for 8-10 minutes in the oven or in a saucepan on the stove. Then using a mini blender, buzz up them up into small pieces. Remove from blender, then add the peppers and goat cheese and blend until you have a chunky consistency. Add the walnuts back in, and blend only until full combined, or you can simply stir them in. Taste for seasoning. Since I bought the marinated roasted peppers there was no need to add any additional seasonings.

Goat cheese makes it creamy and tangy. Peppers makes it sweet.

Goat cheese makes it creamy and tangy. Peppers makes it sweet.

Walnuts give a crunch. A wonderful combination.

Walnuts give a crunch. A wonderful combination.

Gorgeous bright color, full of tang, sweet and crunch.

Gorgeous bright color, full of tang, sweet and crunch.

Olive & Feta Cheese Dip

Ingredients
1/2 c oil cured black olives
1/2 c green olives
1/2 c feta cheese
1/4 c scallions, rough chop
1 garlic clove, rough chop
1/2 c parsley leaves
1/4 c olive oil
1 t lemon juice

The set up for something special.

The set up for something special.

Instructions
In a mini blender, buzz up the parsley, garlic and scallions. Add the black and green olives and buzz until it creates a paste. Add olive oil and lemon juice and blend until combined. Then add the feta cheese. Since the olives and feta have enough flavor and salt content, this dip should not require any additional seasoning. But always taste to see if you need more lemon juice or oil.

Toss the scallions, garlic and parsley in.

Toss the scallions, garlic and parsley in.

Buzz it up until coarsely chopped.

Buzz it up until coarsely chopped.

Add the olives. Then the oil, lemon juice and feta.

Add the olives. Then the oil, lemon juice and feta.

Olive tapenade with feta is a hearty dip, perfect with boiled potatoes for dipping.

Olive tapenade with feta is a hearty dip, perfect with boiled potatoes for dipping.

Bright, crunchy and super green string beans are a fresh and delightful addition to this platter.

Bright, crunchy and super green string beans are a fresh and delightful addition to this platter.

New and fingerling potatoes are the perfect size and consistency for dipping. They also make for a hearty bite.

New and fingerling potatoes are the perfect size and consistency for dipping. They also make for a hearty bite.

Did you see how easy it was to whip up not one but three dips? These were just one of those days when pulling ingredients out and seeing what works together creates ramekins full of goodness.

In my defense of stocking our fridge with these awesome ingredients, we had one of those ‘just in case’ moments when we needed to bring appetizers to a party. Perfect timing, I’d say, as I just finished making these dips and they were picture ready for the party. Pure evidence that having dangling participles in your fridge isn’t a luxury or a nuance but an absolute necessity. I feel redeemed and justified in my condiment collecting craze.

A colorful medley.

A colorful medley.

Fresh and inviting. So, go ahead and invite someone over. Pop some bubbly and dip away.

Fresh and inviting. So, go ahead and invite someone over. Pop some bubbly and dip away.

Post Note: While I was in North Carolina visiting my nieces, my youngest niece made all 3 of these dips for us to snack on. Then we brought the leftovers to my oldest nieces newly purchased townhouse, which we helped her moved into. These dips were the perfect snack as we unpacked, unwrapped and set up her new abode. Everyone loved them. I guess these 3 dips a dipping are even more handy that I originally thought.!

Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Spinach, Feta & Goat Cheese

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I love when we have friends and family stay with us.  It gives me even more motivation to cook and find some new dishes to test out.  Such was the case when my brother came to visit from L.A. for an extended stay.  He was in town to research and write a movie script which the timing of his visit just so happened to coincide with my mom's knee replacement surgery.  Lucky for me, he was able to do all the heavy lifting in helping her recup. He bopped back and forth from our house to my parents, where he did all the cooking while staying at their house. So naturally I wanted to give him a break when he was at ours.  He is most definitely into healthy eating and steering clear of wheat and bread.  Which was perfect, since so do I. We enjoyed a few good meals mixing up the proteins and sides but mostly keeping it simple.

With chicken on the menu for his last night in NY, I wanted to make it slightly more special than just oven roasted.  You can count on me to rev up the creative juices when the fridge is full with stuff that needs to be used.  Hence, "let me stuff chicken breasts with spinach, feta and goat cheese."  All of which were in some crazy abundance in the fridge that week.  (The goat was was originally destined for a tart idea that's been brewing. The spinach was supposed to have been a side dish. And the feta was one cheese that my brother asked for salads and for Greek inspired dishes. So that explains it.) 

Besides just enjoying his company, I double downed on my good fortune of having him around as he snapped photos while I prepared this meal. Among his many talents, add photographer with a keen eye. So while my hands were full or messy, he documented the prep work.  I'm telling you, as much as I love taking photos of what I make, it was a real treat to be able to just cook and not worry about cleaning my hands, taking the shot, then back to mixing, stirring or chopping.  I'm spoiled now.

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ingredients

4 chicken breasts
14 oz baby spinach*, sautéed
2 T shallots, minced
2 T garlic, minced
1/2 c goat cheese
1/2 c feta cheese
1/2 c white wine (I used Muga Rosé, as it was leftover)
Oil roasted tomatoes
Magic 3 (Olive Oil, Salt, Pepper)

* I used 20 oz of spinach which was more than enough for filling but I used the rest as leftovers the next day to make corn quesadillas with feta.

Instructions

Sauté the shallots, garlic in oil seasoning with salt and pepper.  Add the spinach, cooking until wilted, then set aside to cool. 

I chopped the spinach because I thought it would be easier to eat as well as insert into the chicken.   Photo credit: Robert Perri

I chopped the spinach because I thought it would be easier to eat as well as insert into the chicken.   Photo credit: Robert Perri

Clean, wash and thoroughly dry the chicken breasts.  Then cut a pocket into the thick middle of each breast. (Note: making sure your protein (chicken, meat, fish) is thoroughly dried ensures you will get a good sear.)

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Stuff each one with spinach then add the goat and feta cheeses into the pocket.  Secure with a toothpick. 

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Season the chicken with salt, pepper and olive oil, then sear them on both sides in a cast iron skillet.  Add wine and oven roasted tomatoes and then place in a 350 degree oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on the thickness of the chicken.

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

It just so happened that my sister, Jill, was also in town, which made it a nice send off.  It was too bad that my other sis, Alyssa, couldn't make it.  Since we were a party of four I needed some side dishes.  Pulling items out of the fridge, here's the list of extras.

And there you have a goodbye meal that felt like we were sending him back home with love.

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

Photo credit: Robert Perri

He doesn't like his photo to be taken, so you will have to take my word for it that he enjoyed the meal with a smile.  Enough so that he ate some of the leftovers the next day before we drove to JFK. And just the other day he told me that he recreated this dish when he got home. A Winner.
I think this could also be a good brunch dish.  If you slice the cutlets in thick pieces, place them all on a large platter and pour the juices and tomatoes over top, it's an easy pick up and go dish for a buffet.

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Feeding the people you love is what cooking is all about.  Whether you are making a meal for someone coming into town or someone who is leaving, nourishing their bodies and souls is always better stirred with love.  A most wholesome gift indeed.

Gremolata on Grilled Eggplants - Dana style

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Last summer I happened upon long, white eggplants that motivated me to grill them and top them with a feta cream concoction.  I, and my guests, loved the combo so much that I was again inspired by the zesty, tangy flavors of feta, herbs and lemon. This time wanting to create more of a gremolata style topping. 

Ok, before the emails start coming asking, "What is gremolata" ? (Although trust me, I never mind getting your email questions or suggestions.)  Gremolata is an Italian condiment, if you will.  Super basic, but like many things Italian, it makes a powerful statement.  It's a zesty garnish of chopped herbs. The classic version consists of lemon zest, garlic, parsley and anchovy and is often used as to complement such dishes as Osso Buco alla Milanese, providing a final flavor zip to a rich meat dish.  

Classic style is great since most of those ingredients are common to every kitchen, and it creates a wonderful go-to topping to liven up any dish.  However, fear not of veering off the common path. I implore you to go ahead and venture out. Mix and match to design your own gremolata.  Think other citrus fruits such as lime, orange, grapefruit.  Mix up the herb type either substituting or adding to the parsley with cilantro/coriander, mint, sage. When it comes to the spicy zing of garlic, ponder anything zingy: finely grated fresh horseradish, grated ginger or minced shallot. Some chefs even throw in Pecorino Romano cheese, anchovy, toasted pine nuts or grated bottarga.  So, no big surprise that I would riff off the classic gremolata to create a garnish that was destined to brighten up another batch of long, white eggplants. 

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I quickly began compiling items for my dana version.  The key to a great gremolata is FRESH ingredients. No jarred herbs or citruses allowed.

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ingredients

1/4 c chopped parsley
3 T chopped Moroccan or oil cured olives
1 T chopped fresh, mint
2 T chopped oven dried tomatoes*
1/3 c crumbled feta
1/4 t red pepper flakes
3 T minced shallot
1 T lemon zest
3 T olive oil

*I made my own oven dried tomatoes and packed them in oil. Recipe is linked above but can also use sun dried tomatoes

Instructions

Grill or prepare the meat or veggie of your choice.  As I mentioned, I grilled white eggplants and onions.

Chop, prep all the above ingredients and combine together.  A true gremolata does not include the oil. But you can add it to the mix or drizzle it over top the final dish.

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This adds such a bright, summer fresh flavor to grilled anything.  Heck, I bet this would be banging on a grilled hamburger.  Skip the ketchup, and pile on the gremolata!!

Another fringe benefit to using gremolata on vegetables is that you rake in all the fresh, brightness of citrus without turning your green vegetables brown. I also tried it on spaghetti squash and it definitely imparted a different flavor profile.  Now that's amore!

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Pasta Mescolanza - Mesco What?

Now I bet you are wondering about the title of this post. No, it doesn't mean eggplant which is ironic since that IS the main ingredient. Basically it means mixed up pasta.  This is the word my grandmother used to dub my dishes whenever I made up recipes that seemed odd or foreign to her.  So it seemed quite fitting to give this dish that name since it is typical of my  'what do I have to cook with?' style.

It all began this past Monday as I was driving home from the city right around lunch time.  I was so hungry that my first instinct was to stop on any city street corner and grab some food.  I even considered one of those nasty looking carts that didn't look quite...well, shall we say "healthy". Lucky for me my natural tendency was to not spend money needlessly when I knew there were items at home.  It just required some patience.  I endured the ride home and used the time to mentally survey what contents presently existed in my refrigerator. I knew I had two things that needed to get used soon. Eggplant and feta cheese.  (I zealously over bought fresh feta from our local Armenian market because it looked oh so beautiful and I wanted to do a taste comparison between French & Greek Feta.)

I also knew I had potatoes and for a split second starting building on that.  Until my Italian roots kicked in with deep rumblings from my stomach crying out PASTA. Which is how that became the base for whatever it was I was about to cook up.  As with any 'something from nothing'  creation, you build as you go.  I got home and immediately put water up to boil for my pasta.

Pasta boiling away.Doesn't that look like the start of something heavenly.  

Pasta boiling away.Doesn't that look like the start of something heavenly.  

Then I opened the fridge to see what else might tag along on this eggplant, feta, pasta ride.  Staple items sitting in the door shelves screamed out 'Use me, it's been awhile.'  In order of loudest screams were:  sun-dried tomatoes, oil cured olives, and capers. The shallot and garlic were a given to be used.  Earthy, strong, powerful flavors taking a stand for pasta.

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While the pasta was boiling away, I cubed the eggplant and in a screaming hot cast iron skillet I added a small amount of oil and the eggplant.  Key here, do not add too much oil or touch the eggplant.  It's a sponge.  The more oil you add the more it will absorb and then it gets mushy.  Not stirring them around allows them to sear, which is what I wanted.  

 

Whilst that was cooking away, I chopped up sun-dried tomatoes, black oil cured olives, shallot and garlic.  

Once I gave the eggplant a stir, I added a bit more oil along with the shallots and garlic to let them cook.  Then in went the rest of the items.  Do not add any salt to this before you taste it. Between the sun-dried tomatoes, olives and capers the salt level is already at a pretty good pitch. (If you like heat, add some red pepper flakes.)

 

The Mescolanza coming together.

The Mescolanza coming together.

The pasta was just shy of al dente, so it was the perfect time to add it to the eggplant pan and combine.  And a little of the pasta water helps binds it altogether.

As I mentioned I had a ton of feta so that is what I topped this dish with.  However, goat cheese would be great too. This dish has an very earthy flavor to it.  Not for the shy at heart since all those flavors pack a punch.  When you are starving with but one fresh element to work with, pull from your reserves and create your own Pasta Mescolanza.  Perfect for Monday or any day.  

Below are the rough amounts for this dish.  Honestly, I would have never measured a single item for this creation, as a true something from nothing creation is all about whatever you have in whatever amount you have. But I did want to give you a guide, so below is what I used.  This only took 15 minutes to pull together and my stomach was as happy as any Italian could be.

ingredients

1/2 lb pasta
1/4 c approx. Baby eggplant, cubed
1/3 c sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
1/4 c black oil cured olives, chopped
1/4 c shallots, minced
1 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 t capers
Olive oil
Feta or goat cheese, amount to be determined by you

While writing this post, I ate the whole bowl and forced myself to stay in my office so as not to go back for a refill. The two things I would do differently.  Mince or thinly slice the garlic, and add fresh parsley or basil if I had any. Also, I ate the leftovers the next day and used creamy goat cheese.  I must admit that I prefer that over the feta as it mellows out the intense flavors of all the other ingredients and creates a creaminess to the dish.  A Mangiare!!

 

Orzo Salad ala Greek

Fresh green salads are a no brainer for the summer.  They are refreshing, crisp and light, as a summer salad should be.  Yet sometimes you may want all of that in a salad but need a tad more substance.  This is when pasta takes its cue and comes to the rescue. (In my opinion, pasta answers any of my rescue calls. It's my lifesaver. Literally and figuratively!)  
This Orzo Pasta Salad with a nod to Greece, is an oldie but goodie.  As with some of my archive recipes, I made them a lot in the past but then just moved on.  Or so I thought.  Come to find out that both my sisters, Alyssa and Jill, have continued to make this particular recipe throughout the years.   Which gives me smiles.  What gives them smiles is when I have to call them so THEY can remind me how I originally told them to make it.  Who cares how we get our smiles, as long as we are smiling.

First, allow me to enumerate on the many great aspects of this dish.  

  • First, it's easy, and that is a huge plus. Good food doesn't have to be complicated or a royal pain in the...
  • Second, since it uses orzo, the pasta component isn't too heavy yet it satisfies superbly.  How perfectly is that!
  • Third, it contains crunchy vegetables. This is two fold good because we all need our veggies and they provide another textural element.
  • Fourth, it packs a ton of flavor.  

Geez, I could keep on keeping on, but do I really need to?   Trust me, it's good.  So let's get down to brass tacks and assemble this one up.  I say ala Greek because the ingredients are similar to a Greek Salad just no lettuce but instead a tooth bite of orzo.  

Ingredients

(Yields approx. 5 cups)

1 lb. box Orzo, cooked
1 c English cucumber, seeds removed, small dice
1/3-2/3 c Calamata olives, chopped
1.5 - 2 c red, orange, yellow pepper, small dice
1/4 c scallions, sliced
1/3 heaping c red onion, small dice
2/3 c fresh basil, chiffonade
2/3 - 3/4 c Feta cheese, crumbled

The line up

The line up

Alright, let me continue with the plusses on this salad. You can prep everything the day before if you wanted to. Just place the chopped vegetables in an airtight container.  You could even cook the orzo if you wanted to. Just add some oil to keep it from sticking together.  Heck, you can make the salad a day ahead of time. Just add the feta before serving.  I told you I could go on and on about the pros to this salad.  

Instructions

Cook the orzo according to the package.  I like mine, as with all my pastas, al dente.  While the orzo is cooking chop the vegetables and olives as suggested above.   Let the orzo cool a bit, then toss it together with vegetables and olives. 

Orzo, the perfect little pasta.  This time it's starring in a salad.  But try it in soups. Che buono!

Orzo, the perfect little pasta.  This time it's starring in a salad.  But try it in soups. Che buono!

When cutting up vegetables, I usually like to slice them up in different sizes to create varying textures and shapes. However, with this salad I would recommend cutting everything in relatively the same size.  It creates an balanced salad, a balanced bite as well as makes it easy to eat. 

This time the veggies are conforming to one size, but they don't mind.  

This time the veggies are conforming to one size, but they don't mind.  

Once you have everything cut, combine with the orzo.  Then move onto mixing up the dressing.

Vibrant, fresh colors of summer.

Vibrant, fresh colors of summer.

Whisk up or mix up in a jar, and dress the salad up.

Whisk up or mix up in a jar, and dress the salad up.

Dressing

2/3 c Olive oil
1/4 c Red Wine Vinegar
1 t dried oregano
2 heaping t salt
1/2 t crushed black pepper
2 t fresh lemon juice
Zest of lemon, optional

Whisk together and pour over the salad.  I do like to add the dressing when the orzo is slightly warm.  The pasta tends to absorb even more of the flavor.  Once combined, add most of feta cheese and chopped basil leaves.

 

Leave some so you can adorn the top of the salad with more feta and basil, and serve.  This salad is best at room temp.  But I have eaten it right out of the refrigerator. (Actually, standing in the refrig, spoon in hand and gobbling it right out of the container.)

Versatile and vibrant little summer pasta salad that goes with everything.  It's great for a midweek meal using any leftovers for lunch the next day. (That is if you have any leftovers).  Add a base of mixed greens and pile some pasta salad on top. And of course,  this dandy of a dish is simply divine for a summer BBQ crowd.  I even brought a batch into the staff at Despaña and it got all smiles all around.  Like I said, pasta to the rescue.