Category Archives: 2pixfordinner

Mother-in-Law’s Birthday Dinner: Lobster with a Trio of Dipping Sauces; Cherry Tomato and Avocado Salad with Lemon Dressing

Melanie writes: Help!! Tonight we are hosting a birthday dinner for my really picky mother-in-law. Her favorite food is lobster so her husband is bringing them already cooked (amazing) but I am responsible for sides. I was thinking of a pasta to start. She only likes marinara on her pasta but I have only made a few marinara sauces and all were only mediocre. Can you suggest something that does not overwhelm the lobster but is good? I am also going to come up with a salad?! Thank you!!!

Tony’s take: I know Melanie and I know Melanie’s mother-in-law, so I get that this is a very delicate operation. The accompaniments for the lobster need to be slightly interesting and dressy (to show Melanie’s put in the effort to honor the occasion), but not so dressy that it’s open to ridicule (which tough mother-in-laws are wont to do). My suggestion is to make a trio of quick dipping sauces to go with the lobster: the marinara can go either with the lobster or with the pasta as you like. And then why don’t you try to make a warm infused butter with rosemary, lemon, and garlic. This is like a cross between the drawn butters traditionally served with lobster and the herb infused oils that you often see in restaurants for dipping bread. Round out the trio of sauces with a light soy-ginger dipping sauce whose tang will be perfect for the lobster. This last sauce might be the only thing that feels a little fancy, but not so much that your mother-in-law will think you’re putting on airs. And then for a salad, pick out things which go nicely with lobster: a nice lemon vinaigrette, some avocado, tomatoes, a little red onion, some greens (something assertive like arugula would be nice, though Boston lettuce might go over a little better).  Obviously the best thing you’ve got going for you, though, is those two beautiful boys who no doubt will smooth out any problems that she might have with the dinner preparation.

What you need:

Ingredients: Warm infused butter (Butter, fresh rosemary, lemon, garlic, crushed red pepper flakes, S+P) , marinara (whole canned tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, rosemary or thyme, crushed red pepper flakes), soy-ginger dipping sauce (soy sauce, sesame oil, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, crushed red pepper flakes, scallion) salad and dressing (avocado, cherry tomatoes, Boston lettuce – 1 head – or 5 ounces baby arugula, red onion, olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon, basil)

Equipment: Cutting board, chef’s knife, grater, 2 medium bowls (for the sauces and vinaigrette), medium pot (for the marinara), small saucepan (for the butter), whisk, wooden spoon

How to do it:

I’ll take on each one individually so you can pick out what you want to make:

Marinara: I actually shared a recipe for a large batch of marinara on Cook Angel a little over a week ago, so I’ve attached the link here: just halve the amount for tonight. The real trick to a great marinara is to infuse the oil at the start of cooking with big flavors (garlic, a fresh herb – like rosemary- and a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes). Use good canned tomatoes and you should be all set.

Warm Infused Butter: Set one 1 stick butter (1/2 cup) in a small saucepan along with a couple sprigs of fresh rosemary (just pull them off the stem), 2 or 3 smashed garlic cloves (use the side of a chef’s knife and press down), a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes, and a couple strips of lemon zest if you like (use a peeler to shave off 1-inch strips). Just before you’re about to serve the butter, set the saucepan over medium heat until the butter melts and the herbs and garlic become very fragrant, about 2 minutes. Season with a little salt and pepper to taste (remember, lobster is pretty salty to start with). Hold over very low heat until serving (this will allow the ingredients to keep on infusing their flavor).

Soy-Ginger Dipping Sauce: Peel a 1-inch knob of fresh ginger and then finely grate it using a microplane; or just mince 1 Tbs. using a knife. Mix this ginger with 1 small clove garlic (minced), 1/4 cup soy sauce, a splash of rice vinegar and sesame oil (about 2 tsp. and 1 tsp. respectively), a little brown sugar (about 2 tsp.) and 1 scallion (thinly sliced). Whisk well along with 1/4 cup water and add more of any of the ingredients above to taste.

Salad: Because ripe avocado is kind of delicate, I think it’s a good idea to add it after you’ve already dressed the salad.  In a large salad bowl, arrange the leaves of 1 head Boston lettuce (double this up if you want to serve more than 4) or 5 ounces of baby arugula (one of those large plastic containers at the market or go with two if you’re serving a crowd), 1 pint of grape or cherry tomatoes (halved), 1 small red onion (very thinly sliced – omit if these won’t go over well with your mother- in-law), and some torn fresh basil leaves (about 10 – just tear them with your fingers into small pieces). In a small bowl, whisk 1/4 cup olive oil with 1 Tbs. red wine vinegar and generous sprinkling of salt and pepper (about 3/4 tsp. and 1/2 tsp. each). Whisk well and then toss with the greens. Add a squirt of fresh lemon juice (about 1 Tbs.)  and then season to taste with more salt, pepper, lemon juice, oil, or vinegar. Top with 1 diced avocado and serve.

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Another small step for parents: Homemade Chicken Fingers with Sweet and Sour Dipping Sauce

Lisa writes: I liked your post about Macaroni and Cheese earlier in the week though in my house it’s chicken fingers almost every night. There are some ok brands that I’ve found (like Bell and Evans), but I’d like to make them myself every so often (if not more).  I know there’s nothing to it, but it seems I would have to plan it out a bit. I’ve got the chicken (lovely pic, huh?), now what?

Tony’s take: Ok, Lisa, I already had my mac-and-cheese rant earlier this week, so I won’t get on the soap box again. It does amaze me the power that chicken nuggets have over kids, though. And it does put parents in a bind, because breading small pieces of chicken probably falls last on their list of necessary or achievable tasks. And it’s easy for me to say because  I don’t have any kids (and I know parents hate when non-parents give them parenting advice), but I think it’s doable. I have a butt-load of chicken-finger experience as we make a whole bunch of them for our b.good stores and so I know that it’s really not that hard. It’s just a question of time and gameplanning it out (and a couple of little tricks so these don’t taste “baked”). Cut chicken breasts or tenderloins into 1-inch strips, toss them with a little salt and pepper, then set up bowls of flour, egg, and panko breadcrumbs. And, now, here is where the gameplanning comes into play: get a couple of helpers (preferably the same crew that will be eating these later) and have one person flour, one egg, and one pat on the breadcrumbs. Do up a large batch (like 50 pieces or 3 or 4 lb. of chicken), set them on a baking sheet, and freeze whatever you’re not going to eat tonight (give the chicken pieces an hour in the freezer and they will firm up and you can transfer them to zip-top bags for whenever the mood strikes). Then bake up a batch and whisk together a quick (no-cook) sweet and sour dipping sauce (make extra of this as well). And it will work: prepare this large batch of chicken fingers and a mac and cheese every week and I promise your kids will never end up in therapy complaining about how you never cooked for them!

Yields 16 pieces, serves 3 to 4. Prep time: 20 minutes; Cook time: about 15 minutes. Note: double or triple the amounts below as desired.

What you need:

Ingredients: Chicken (1 lb. = 1 batch), S+P, garlic powder, paprika, fresh thyme (very optional)  flour, eggs (3 = 1 batch), panko breadcrumbs, olive oil, ketchup, honey, pineapple juice, Dijon mustard soy sauce, rice vinegar

Equipment: Cutting board, chef”s knife, 3 bowls (for breading), 1 bowl for chicken, whisk, baking sheets (for baking and for freezing extra), medium bowl (for sauce)

How to do it: Prepare the chicken: Cut chicken breasts (1 lb. or 2 large breasts for a single batch) into 1-inch strips – try to make them even, though don’t stress it (each should be about 1 oz. giving you anywhere between 12 and 16 pieces). Set the chicken  in a medium bowl and toss with some salt and pepper (about 3/4 tsp. and 1/2 tsp. respectively) and a large pinch of garlic powder and paprika if your kids won’t freak about a little flavor; omit both if you want to keep things simple.

Bread the chicken: Put about 1 cup flour in a shallow bowl (like a pie plate), 3 eggs (beaten) in another, and a couple cups of Panko breadcrumbs in the last; Panko is coarse which will give the chicken fingers some crunch. To the breadcrumbs, add a splash of olive oil (about 1 Tbs.) some salt (about 1/2 tsp.) and some chopped fresh thyme (about 1 tsp.) if you’re feeling crazy and your kids can handle it. Dip one of the strips of chicken first in the flour (shaking off any excess), then drop it in the egg and flip a couple of times so it’s coated, before transferring to the breadcrumbs where you’ll want to pat/press the breadcrumbs so they stick properly. Note: if you’re doing this alone, use tongs for dipping in the eggs so your fingers don’t get breaded just like the chicken.

Bake and make the dipping sauce: Heat the oven to 425 and arrange the chicken fingers on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake them until they brown and are completely firm to the touch, 10 to 15 minutes. Cut into a thicker piece to check it’s cooked through. Meanwhile, make the dipping sauce (halve this amount if you only want enough for tonight): in a medium bowl, whisk together 1 cup ketchup with 1/4 cup each honey and pineapple juice, and 1 Tbs. each soy sauce, rice vinegar,  and Dijon mustard. Add a little more honey if you’d like the sauce sweeter.

Serve the chicken fingers with the sauce for dipping and feel good about yourself.

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Whole Grilled Chicken with a Tex-Mex Spice Rub and Chipotle Glaze

Karen writes: I want to grill a whole chicken tonight. I have a full spice drawer for a spice rub and I’m open to a sauce though I would want it to be quick. I can stop off at the supermarket on my way home today for little things.

Tony’s take: I like your thinking – a simple, but tasty meal. Grilling a whole chicken is easier than most people think. A couple of years back, beer can chicken became really popular and while I think that’s a nice technique (definitely a cool party trick), I find it far easier to butterfly the chicken (just a fancier way of saying taking out its backbone) so it can lay flat on the grill. This helps it cook through quickly and evenly. A spice rub is a good idea and since you’re open to a quick sauce, you can finish it off with a really easy chipotle glaze, one of my favorites, which will make this dish a little more special. Serve the grilled chicken with a simple side – I’d go rice – and some sort of grilled vegetable – like asparagus or zucchini. Serves 4. Total time: about 1 hour; Prep time:  about 20 min.

What you’ll need:

Ingredients: The chicken (of course) – a 4-lb bird sounds about right, olive oil, spices (chili powder, cumin, garlic powder, sugar, chipotle powder or pimenton de la Vera if you have), canned chipotle en adobo, honey, cider vinegar, and tomato paste (if you have).

Equipment: Grill (gas will be quicker and easier to control for this technique, charcoal more flavorful), tongs,spatula, basting brush, blender or food processor, chef’s knife (or kitchen shears).

How to do it: Make the spice rub. In a small bowl, mix even parts kosher salt, chile powder, cumin, and sugar (about 1 tsp.) with some black pepper and garlic powder (about 1/2 tsp. each), and a large pinch (about 1/4 tsp.) of chipotle powder (or pimenton or cayenne).

Butterfly the chicken: If you look up at the neck of a chicken, you can see the backbone running down its length (on the opposite side of the breasts). You’re going to want to cut out a 1-inch strip so you remove the whole backbone. To do this, you can use a chef’s knife or, even better, kitchen shears (which are a lot easier to use for this technique). Starting at one side of the neck (you can hold that to get a grip), cut down straight through the breast bones (these should give way easily) all the way to and around the tailbone (there’s a little space between that and the bone from the thigh). Do the same on the other side of the tailbone so you cut off a 1-inch strip. This video is pretty good if you want a little more visual assistance. Now you can flip the chicken over (breast side up) and press it down so it lays flat.  Give the chicken a rinse, pat it dry, and sprinkle it all over with the spice rub and drizzle with a touch of olive oil.

Grill the chicken: Heat half of the burners on a gas grill to medium high and the other half to medium low or light up a charcoal fire and spread 3/4 of the coals to one side (so the other side has just a very thin layer). Grill the chicken (breast side down) over the hotter part of the fire until it starts to brown and get good grill marks (about 5 minutes); transfer the chicken to the cooler zone immediately if it starts to burn (chicken skin has a tendency to flare up, especially if the fire is hot). Flip (so the chicken is breast side up), transfer the chicken to the cooler zone, cover the grill (with the vents open on a charcoal fire) and grill until the chicken cooks through, about 20 to 25 more minutes – an instant read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thighs and breasts should register 165F or make a nick to check that it’s cooked through.

While, the chicken is grilling, make the glaze: Add 1 canned chipotle and 1 Tbs. of the adobo sauce (the sauce that comes in the can with the peppers), 1/2 cup honey, a splash of cider vinegar (about 2 Tbs.), and a spoonful of tomato paste (about 1 Tbs. if you have – not necessary) to a food processor or blender and puree. Divide this glaze into two bowls – one for basting and one for dipping at the dinner table.

Glaze the chicken: Once the chicken is cooked through, transfer it back to the hot zone and brush it all over with the glaze and cook, flipping and brushing some more, so the glaze caramelizes and bubbles on the chicken’s skin, 1 to 2 minutes.

Serve: Cut the chicken into pieces and serve drizzled with some more of the glaze.

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A New Kitchen’s Maiden Voyage: Sauteed Beef Tenderloin with a Red Wine and Shallot Sauce, Parmesan Mashed Potatoes and Sauteed Spinach

Andie writes: So after many years of planning, I finally have a grown-up kitchen and I can FINALLY do high-heat cooking inside the house instead of relegating it to the gas grill outside, since I actually have a real vent-a-hood. Why don’t you plan the menu for our first meal in the kitchen – we’re easy to please, cuisine-wise. Only things that are a no-go are: bivalves (clams, oysters, mussels) green bell peppers (blegh) and raw onion or garlic. If it calls for anything like that, I always saute it first, or it’s all I can taste.

Tony’s take: I’m not sure if I’m honored by the privilege, just totally jealous, or curious about who your contractor was (and whether he’s interested in some pro-bono work). I think it’s mostly door #1 – the whole thing is very exciting and I’m glad to help with the first test drive. Since you do have that commercial grade stove-top and hood, why don’t you let loose with a little high heat, the kind of meal that you would normally eat out, but is now easy enough to make in your new kitchen? Pick up some filet mignons (or a rib eye or strip steak if that’s more your thing), sear it in a ripping hot pan until both sides are browned, transfer to the oven to finish cooking to the desired doneness, make a quick pan sauce with red wine and shallots (cooked!!), and serve the beef with sauteed spinach and mashed potatoes. Sound good? MENU FOR 2

How to do it: Season the beef : About 30 minutes before cooking, season the beef with kosher salt and pepper on both sides (be generous with the salt about 1 1/4 tsp. salt for 12 oz filet mignon or 1 1/4 lb. rib eye). Let the meat sit at room temperature so its interior starts to warm up a touch, which will help it cook through more quickly and evenly. Heat the oven to 400F.

Make the mashed potatoes: Peel 1 1/2 lb. potatoes (I’d prefer buttery Yukon gold’s for this, though Russets would be fine, too), cut into 3/4-inch pieces, set in a medium saucepan, cover with cold water by about 2 inches, stir in some salt (about 2 tsp.), and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook, until the potatoes are completely tender when pierced with the tines of a fork, about 10 minutes. Drain well and return the potatoes to the saucepan. Set over medium heat and mash with a couple of pats of butter (let’s say 2 Tbs.), a splash of heavy cream (about 1/4 cup), and 1/2 cup Parmigiano – rich, yes, but it’s an important meal, so live a little! Season with salt and pepper to taste and stir in some fresh chives if you have. Cover and keep warm over very low heat.

Cook the steaks: Heat a large heavy-based skillet over medium high heat for 1 minute. Pour in a splash of olive oil (about 1 1/2 Tbs.) and heat until it’s shimmering hot. Add the steaks and cook without touching until they brown and easily release from the pan when you lift up an edge with tongs or a fork, about 2 minutes. Flip and cook the other side in the same manner. Transfer the browned steaks to a baking sheet and into the pre-heated oven. Cook them until they reach the desired level of doneness/pinkness – they’re expensive so it’s worth temping them with an instant-read thermometer to be sure (about 130F for medium rare) or make a nick in to a thicker steak with a paring knife, about 5 minutes depending on their thickness. Transfer them to a cutting board to cool for a couple of minutes.

Make the sauce: While the steaks are finishing cooking in the oven, set the pan (with the caramelized bits from searing the steak) back over medium heat, add 1 to 2 finely diced shallots (sounds like you might prefer 1), sprinkle lightly with salt, and cook, stirring to incorporate the browned bits, until the shallot starts to brown lightly and soften, about 2 minutes. Raise the heat to high, add 3/4 cup red wine (anything that you would drink should be fine), and cook, stirring, until the wine almost completely reduces, about 2 minutes. Add a splash of chicken broth (about 1/4 cup) and cook, stirring, until the sauce returns to a boil and reduces slightly. Remove from the heat and whisk in some fresh thyme (about 1 tsp.) if you have and a pat of butter (about 1 Tbs.). Season with salt and pepper to taste (and a little red wine vinegar if you want some more acidity).

Serve the steaks with the pan sauce spooned over it, some mashed potatoes, and sauteed spinach (saute 10 oz with a couple smashed garlic cloves until wilted) or a green salad. Bon appetit!

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Pasta in a Spicy Pink Sauce

Helen writes: I’ve been thinking about this pasta I had in a restaurant a couple of years ago that had a spicy sauce with tomatoes and cauliflower. I’ve canned diced tomatoes, cauliflower, and pasta – not sure what else I need or whether you can tell me how to make it.

Tony’s take: I’m with you, Helen. The restaurant Al Forno in Providence RI made a dish like this famous – a creamy sauce with t0matoes,  cauliflower, cream, and chili flakes which, when pureed, would take on a pinkish hue. It’s really easy – blanch the cauliflower for a couple of minutes and then saute with some garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, simmer with canned tomatoes until tender, and then puree with a splash of cream and some Parmigiano. Toss with a sturdy pasta like rigatoni or penne – you can even throw in some sauteed Italian sausage for a little meatiness – for a nice, relatively quick (I’d say 30 minutes all in) Friday night dinner for 4.

How to do it: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (about 2 Tbs. salt for 1 gallon water). Cut the cauliflower into 4 cups of 1-inch florets (this will take up about half of that head) and add to the boiling water. Cook the cauliflower at a steady simmer until it starts to become tender (try one), 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cauliflower to large plate. Reserve the water for cooking the pasta (the cauliflower will only give it a sweet flavor which is perfectly fine for cooking pasta).

Heat a couple smashed cloves of garlic (use the side of a chef’s knife to press them down and crush them) with a splash of olive oil (1 to 2 Tbs.) in a  a large, heavy pot (a Dutch oven would be good) over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic starts to brown lightly in places and becomes very fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cauliflower, a generous sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes (anywhere between 1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. depending on how how you like it), and some chopped fresh thyme or rosemary (if you have – 1 tsp. of either will do) and cook, stirring, until the cauliflower starts to brown lightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Add some canned tomatoes (I’d use a 32-oz can of either diced or whole tomatoes) and their juices and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is completely tender, about 10 minutes. Add a splash of heavy cream (anywhere between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup would be good – this will give the sauce some richness and the desired pink hue – you can omit this if you can do without the calories) and some grated Parmigiano (1/2 cup)  and puree using an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender. Season generously with salt and pepper to taste and hold the sauce over low heat.

While you’re making the sauce, cook the pasta (1 lb) in the boiling water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well and then add to the pot with the sauce. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring, until the pasta absorbs some of the sauce and becomes tender and the sauce thickens slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve sprinkled with more Parmigiano.

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Big Batch of Marinara

Jaimie writes: My dad is always bringing me stuff from Costco (even though I don’t ask for it!) – our theory is he goes there for the free food samples. Today, he dropped off this humongous can of tomatoes. My thought was to make a large marinara and freeze it in containers. I never really make my own marinara, though.

Tony’s take: Making a large batch of marinara is a good weeknight strategy. It’s easy and you can use the sauce for all sorts of pastas and quick braises (a cacciatore with chicken, a saute with clams and Italian sausage, a minestrone and so on). The trick to a good marinara is to produce intense flavors in a short amount of time. To do this, make an infused oil at the start of cooking with that rosemary, garlic, and some crushed red pepper flakes and use this as the base for the sauce.

How to do it: The whole canned tomatoes that you’ve got are a lot better than the ground peeled tomatoes – cleaner flavor, lighter texture. The only catch is that you have to puree the tomatoes yourself which is easy enough. As for the infused oil for the marinara – you just want to really gently cook some garlic (smashed cloves), herbs (fresh rosemary in this case), and crushed red pepper flakes (for a touch of heat  – if you’re alright with that sort of thing). Note: that big can of tomatoes you have (10 cans as they’re known in the restaurant industry) is the equivalent of 3 regular 32-ounce cans.

To start with, using an immersion blender or working in batches in a regular blender, puree the tomatoes and their juices and set this puree aside. Heat a large splash of olive oil (about 1/2 cup for this large batch) in a heavy pot (like a Dutch oven) over medium heat with 4 or 5 smashed garlic cloves (use the side of a chef’s knife and press down on them to crush them), stirring occasionally, until the garlic starts to brown lightly and becomes very fragrant, about 3 minutes. Stir in about 1 Tbs. chopped fresh rosemary, and a light sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes (1/2 to 1 1/2 tsp. depending on how how you like things) and cook until they, too, start to sizzle steadily and become fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the pureed tomato (and a bay leaf or two if you have) and bring this mixture just up to a boil. Reduce to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic and herbs infuse the sauce, about 20 minutes. At this point you can fish out the garlic cloves and bay leaves if you like (they’ve already done their flavoring thing), season the mixture generously with salt and pepper (different brands of tomatoes will contain different amounts of salt so it’s best to add this in 1/2-tsp. stages and taste), and a splash of balsamic vinegar (about 1 Tbs.). Feel free to chop up and stir in any other fresh herbs you’ve got kicking around – like thyme or basil.

Cool the sauce to room temperature before packaging up and sticking in the freezer. It will hold nicely for up to 3 months there.

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