Monday, February 23, 2009

Escarole and Orzo Soup with Turkey Meatballs

So as I am sure you are all aware, bacterial resistance to antibiotics is starting to become a major issue all over the world. This means that some of our old standby drugs, which are some of the main reasons for our increase in life expectancy over the last 100 years, no longer cure diseases that they used to cure. Medical researchers are constantly having to devise newer, stronger treatments, and then the bacteria continue to evolve resistance. You can imagine the frustration of doctors as they try their reliable fallback treatments to no avail....I'd imagine it's not entirely unlike trying to satisfy the ever developing palate of the 2 year old child. Thankfully for the doctors (and for me), there are some things to fall back on that still work (for now).

I'm sure this is not unusual at all, but as soon as my daughter rejects whatever new menu item I have cooked up that night, we start going through the list...cheese sandwich, Cheerios and milk, peanut butter and jelly, mac and cheese, and we can usually find something that she'll eat. But lo and behold, some of these items just don't cut it anymore, and any or all of them may be rejected. Panic starts to set in as my wife and I realize we're entering a whole new world where past practice does not necessarily indicate future success. Luckily there's one item that so far has always been a hit, always does the trick, and is devoured within minutes, and that's meatball soup (more specifically Escarole and Orzo Soup with Turkey Meatballs). My daughter even eats the escarole AND asks for seconds.

The recipe for this soup is originally from Bon Appetit but I found it featured on one of my favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen.

Start by beating an egg with a bit of water and soaking the bread crumbs in the egg mixture.

Mix the egg/crumb mixture with the parsley, parmesan cheese, salt, garlic, and ground turkey. Mix until just combined.

Using wet hands (so the mixture does not stick), form the meatballs. They should be about 1 inch in diameter (or smaller). A small scoop works well here for portioning. If making them 1 inch in size, you should be able to get about 40 meatballs*. Once they are all made, cover them and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Bring the chicken stock to a boil in a large pot (at least 4.5 quarts).

Add orzo and chopped carrot, reduce heat and simmer vigorously for 8 minutes. In the meantime, wash, dry, and chop some escarole.

Add the meatballs (turn up the heat a bit as the cold meatballs will bring the temperature way down) and simmer for 10 minutes.

If you have to walk away from the pot, make sure you have somebody to watch it for you.

Add the escarole and simmer for 5 more minutes. Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Don't worry, your kids will eat it (until they won't).


I've made different minor changes and adjustments each time I've made this recipe, and have a few suggestions:
  1. *I use 1 pound of ground turkey instead of 12 ounces (and I don't use turkey breast meat, but the ground turkey that is a combo of light and dark meat). The seasoning to me is perfect when you make this change, and you get more meatballs!
  2. The taste of this soup is excellent as the Parmesan cheese in the meatballs really infuses the soup with flavor, especially if you make it a day in advance. One (potential) downside to making it in advance is that the orzo sops up quite a bit of the broth, and the once brothy soup becomes more stew-like. Now this is not a problem for my family and I because we like the soup this way. If you want your soup flavorful buy still brothy, either thin it out with a little warm stock or water then next day, or don't add the orzo when you make the soup, instead just boil it when you are reheating the soup and add the cooked orzo before serving.
  3. I've used dried parsley instead of fresh, and the soup has been just as good.
  4. I've made this soup with both homemade and store bought chicken stock, and it's pretty good both ways, most people probably wouldn't even know the difference.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Wilted Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

I love having people over for dinner because it allows me to indulge in all my chef fantasies. One such fantasy is serving multiple course dinners (3+ courses), which for many practical reasons I never really do. It's an exciting challenge to pick complementary recipes, put them in sequence, and then figure out how to pull off all of the cooking so I can get the food out in a timely fashion (and enjoy the company of friends). I've learned not to be too overly ambitious in recipe choices, and definitely not to try a recipe for the first time during one of these dinners. Good prep work and mise en place is absolutely essential, so any cooking that needs to be done in between courses can be done in a neat and efficient manner. Most important for me is to make a time line of events and follow it closely, this way there is no forgetting to do things like preheat the oven, or start cooking the rice, which can really throw you off your game.

I had a few friends over the other night, and this is what I served:



Sliced Sourdough French Bread with Seasoned Extra Virgin Olive Oil for Dipping and Provolone Cheese

First Course
Wilted Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

Second Course
Cauliflower Soup with Gorgonzola

Third Course

Prosciutto and Provolone Stuffed Chicken Breast with Risotto Milanese and Roasted Butternut Squash with Red Onions and Balsamic Vinegar


Toffee Cake (compliments of my baker extraordinaire mother)


Soup is a great thing to serve during a dinner like this because it can be made in advance and reheated. This particular soup I had made many times before, and it is always a hit (it's always nice to have a ringer on the team). Good homemade bread is always a standout as well. My third course was a little unwieldy thanks to my choice of risotto (which I cooked part way in advance - an ongoing experiment of mine) and a rather labor intensive (but very good) chicken recipe (this one's not free) from Cook's Illustrated. I will definitely make the chicken again, but probably as a standalone dinner, not as a course in a larger meal. The real standout recipe to me in this bunch was the salad.

I was vaguely aware of the concept of a spinach salad with a warm bacon dressing, but I'd never had it before. Somehow this was the first idea that popped into my head when I went about planning this particular menu, so I first had to find a recipe that sounded good to me and test it out. The basic idea is to make a warm dressing utilizing a little fat from some bacon, then pour the hot dressing over the spinach to wilt it a bit before serving. I thought this particular salad made a perfect first course - something slightly out of the ordinary (although apparently it is a classic American recipe), very good, and relatively simple to prepare. I'll definitely be throwing this one into the fancy dinner rotation.

Here's the recipe: Wilted Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Dressing

My changes:
  • I used apple juice instead of apple cider (hard to find cider all year round)
  • I used baby spinach instead of regular spinach (I HATE picking spinach leaves off of spinach stems)
  • I added some crumbled Stilton blue cheese around the edges of the salad (highly recommended)

As a quick aside, let me just say that I don't think there's any better way to spend an evening than at somebody's house, with good food, good wine, and close friends.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Baked Ziti

I hate baked ziti. I hate the dried out pasta tubes around the edges, the mush in the middle, the flavorless sauce, all topped with a plastic layer of cheese, that so often grace picnics, potlucks, birthday parties, etc. I've had so many delicious pasta dishes in my life, that I was perfectly willing to never give baked ziti another try. That is until the March 2009 issue of Cook's Illustrated showed up in the mail and I read this. The good people at Cooks promised me "perfectly al dente pasta, a rich and flavorful sauce, and melted cheese in every bite," and so I was willing to give baked ziti one last try. Even though I knew I was in good hands as Cook's meticulously tests their recipes with every possible trick and tweak until they get them just right, all my past ziti experiences cast a doubtful shadow over my mind (which was somewhat lifted with the help of some good red wine).

The verdict? I've spent the last two days trying to think of the next occasion that would give me a reason to make this dish again, it was that good. It was everything Cook's said it would be, and one of the better pasta dishes to ever come out of my kitchen. Sadly, it is both way too rich and unhealthy, and somewhat time consuming to prepare (about 2 1/2 hours from start to finish), to work its way into my regular meal rotation, but it definitely moves to the head of the class on the "special occasion" list.

Cook's requires you to subscribe to their site in order to get the recipes (if you're ever going to subscribe to anything, you really can't go wrong with Cook's Illustrated), but a little poking around and I found that somebody had posted the recipe on Recipezaar. There's just one mistake to note, it should be 4% fat cottage cheese, not 1%. Cook's recommends Hood brand cottage cheese, and whole milk mozzarella as opposed to part-skim (and warns not to use the pre-grated stuff). And just for me, use the ziti with lines (people, it's all about texture). So if you love baked ziti, I imagine you'll love this reworking of the recipe, and if you're a hater like me, then this might be the one that converts you.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Spaghetti alla Boscaiola

I try a lot of different recipes that I find on the various food blogs that I read. Usually they are very good, but I just don't have time to write long blog posts detailing all of them. In the spirit of efficiency and being concise, I figured I could just past them along here on my blog.

Here's a nice quick pasta dish that I made this past Thursday night. It only involves a few ingredients, and although it's somewhat irritating to have to use 3 separate pots/pans, it's worth it in the end. If you like mushrooms, give this one a try.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Oven Roasted Breakfast Potatoes

I generally make my menu for the week and go food shopping on Saturday morning. Sometimes it's hard to figure out what I want to eat all week long, and I'm not always crazy about the idea of buying veggies and things on Saturday for a dish I'm not going to prepare until Friday, so I've been making "breakfast for dinner" for the past couple of Fridays. Nothing too fancy, a six-egg mushroom and cheese omelet, some sourdough or whole wheat toast, and some potatoes. I really like being able to come home at the end of the week and make a simple yet satisfying meal, and the thing that's really been making this meal has been the potatoes. Now I've extolled the virtues of potatoes with breakfast before, but I've refined my technique and seasoning a bit after trying many different recipes and cooking methods, and I think I've come up with something pretty good (and really easy).

Start by preheating the oven to 400 degrees and cutting up some Russet potatoes into 3/4 inch cubes. I like to leave the skin on, but peeling the potatoes would be fine.

Season the potatoes with salt, black pepper, paprika, onion powder, and garlic powder. Mix in a little vegetable oil and spread the potatoes out on a baking sheet that has been generously coated with cooking spray.

Roast the potatoes on the center rack of the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, flip the potatoes, and roast for another 20 minutes until the potatoes are nice and brown and crispy.

Serve immediately with your breakfast item of choice and a little ketchup.


Oven Roasted Breakfast Potatoes
about 50 minutes - serves 4
  • 3 medium russet potatoes, washed well and dried
  • 3 teaspoons vegetable oil (I use canola)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  2. Cut potatoes into 3/4 inch cubes
  3. In large bowl, mix potatoes with salt, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, and oil until well coated
  4. Generously coat a non-stick sheet pan (1/2 sheet size) with cooking spray
  5. Spread the potatoes evenly on the sheet pan and place the pan on the center rack of the oven
  6. Roast for 20 minutes, flip the potatoes over, roast another 20 minutes until the potatoes are brown and crispy (roasting time may be extended 5 to 10 minutes for darker, crisper potatoes), serve immediately