Chicken Parmesan with Crunch and a Little Kick

First of all, ignore the heart-shaped ravioli, unless it’s Valentine’s Day again and it’s time for heart-shaped ravioli. If that’s the case, I made the ravioli below with this recipe using a small heart-shaped cookie cutter.

Chicken parmesan with heart-shaped ravioli, because it was Valentine's Day. Normally, I'd probably serve the chicken with store-bought whole wheat penne.

Today I want to talk about chicken parmesan. (That’s the little cheese-covered thing below the ravioli. Trust me, there’s crunchy breaded chicken under there.)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of chicken parm that is breaded, fried, and then covered with sauce and cheese and baked. I always wondered why you would want to bother with breading and frying something if you’re just going to make it all soggy by covering it with liquid and baking it. I like to make it my mom’s way, which had a nice contrast in textures between the crispy breading, melted cheese, and marinara sauce. I’ve healthied my version up a little, using oven-fried chicken with a whole-wheat panko coating. Mom didn’t have panko back in the day.

I also like to put in a little surprise secret ingredient: I stick a little sliver of pepper jack cheese under the mozzarella. Not so much that you’re going, “Hey, a burrito!” Just enough to add a little kick.

I start with oven-fried chicken adapted from the Oven Fried Chicken with Almonds recipe in the South Beach Diet Cookbook. I use whole wheat panko crumbs instead of breadcrumbs and change the herbs according to whim. Also, the original recipe calls for pounding chicken breasts, but I’ve found that it’s quicker and easier to buy thin-sliced chicken breasts. You don’t have to go through the mess of pounding (though my son really liked that part) and the chicken seems to turn out more tender.

Chicken Parmesan

1 cup whole wheat panko crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup raw almonds
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Pinch of ground black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/4 pound thin-sliced chicken breasts*

Pepper jack cheese, sliced
Mozzarella cheese slices
Marinara sauce
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  2. In a food processor, process almonds until finely chopped. Add panko crumbs, grated Parmesan, garlic, salt, oregano, and pepper. Process until combined. Empty mixture into a medium bowl. Pour olive oil into a shallow bowl.
  3. Dip chicken breasts in olive oil, then dredge in the panko mixture and arrange on a baking sheet.
  4. Bake for 25 minutes, or until thermometer inserted into the center of a piece registers 170 degrees.
  5. Top each piece of chicken with a small slice of pepper jack cheese and top with sliced mozzarella. Allow cheese to melt, then top with marinara and serve.
* There will be enough breading for about two pounds of chicken, if you want to open another package. I just use what comes in a standard package, which is usually a little under a pound and a quarter.
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How to Make Eggless Homemade Ravioli

Recently I’ve had a couple of people ask me how to make homemade ravioli. Okay, it wasn’t all that recently. It was before the holidays, when I typically make a lot of ravioli. However, during the holidays I generally don’t have time to do anything more than make the ravioli and post a show-offy picture on Facebook, then collapse from exhaustion. Now that I’ve recovered, I thought I’d share my totally non-expert thoughts on making ravioli.

Though I’ve been known to make occasional random batches of ravioli here and there year-round, we have a tradition of having it on Christmas Eve at our house as part of our Feast of the Two Fishes. (This is based on the Italian tradition of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, but as we are a small family and only two of us are part Italian, we’re down to two fishes. Actually, they are usually crustaceans and bivalves, if you want to be exact, but hey, at least we have a tradition.)

I’m not sure when this got started, but clearly it was sometime after I learned to make ravioli, and then found a really good butternut squash ravioli recipe, courtesy of Emeril Lagasse. I usually pair it with broiled shrimp and scallops with just a touch of Cajun seasoning on them.

As I said, I’m no expert in pasta making. From what I’ve been able to determine so far, my ancestors hailed from every western European country except Italy, so I’m not sure where I got my affinity for Italian food. If you want to learn about ravioli from an expert, check out this video from Laura Schenone, author of The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family (Norton, 2008). I also highly recommend the book.

To paraphrase the book jacket, Schenone has clearly mastered “… the mysteries of pasta, rolled on a pin into a perfect circle of gossamer dough.” That’s not how I do it, and to be honest, I’ve never had anyone fall out of his chair raving about how gossamery my pasta is. However, they do gobble it up and ask for more, and my way is a bit faster and easier, so I’ll share it. Note: My son is allergic to eggs, so I use Mario Batali‘s recipe for Eggless Pasta.

Things You’ll Need

  • Food processor, pasta machine, ravioli mold, rolling pin, small cookie scoop
  • 1 recipe ravioli (see above link)
  • Filling (see above link and recipe below)

Before we get started, I’d just like to say a thing or two about ravioli molds. I have a ravioli mold that makes a dozen medium-sized ravioli at a time. It’s easier than cutting them out individually and pressing them together, but the drawback is that it sometimes allows for air pockets. These are considered uncool among the ravioli crowd, I believe because they can cause the ravioli to break open. A friend tried a ravioli stamp and wasn’t crazy about it. My dream tool would be a ravioli pin like the one Schenone uses in her video. But then we’re getting into rolling-out-circles-of-gossamer territory, so it may be a while.

Instructions

First, make your filling. If you make the full recipe for Batali’s pasta, you will have enough for a batch of butternut squash pasta and a batch of another. I make cheese (recipe below). You can also halve the recipe for lesser occasions.

Next, make the pasta. The traditional method calls for piling your flour in the center of a cutting board, making a well in the center and adding your water (or eggs, if using) a little at a time, stirring with your hands, and then kneading. My method calls for piling the flour in a large food processor and adding water a little at a time with the processor running on a low speed. As soon as it comes together, take it out and divide into two balls. Cover one and set aside. Knead the dough by running it through the pasta machine on the widest setting 8-10 times. Cover and set aside. Repeat with remaining pasta. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 10 minutes at room temperature.ravioli2 (2)

To fill the pasta, roll it through the pasta machine at increasing settings until it is thin but not so much that it won’t hold filling. I usually stop at level 4 or 5. Lightly flour the pasta mold and lay the dough across it. Use the plastic thingy that comes with the mold to make indentions for your filling. Using a small (teaspoon-sized) cookie dough scoop, fill each section. Cover the ravioli with another section of dough. Seal the ravioli by rolling with a rolling pin, starting in the center of the mold and working outward. Flip the mold over and gently remove the ravioli. Place the ravioli in a large dish sprinkled with cornmeal (I also use wax paper between layers). Repeat with remaining dough and filling. Chill in refrigerator until ready to cook.

To cook, simply drop in boiling water until ravioli floats to the top. Many people recommend salting the water for various reasons. I’m going to leave that up to you.

Cheese Ravioli Filling

Makes enough filling for 1/2 of Mario Batali’s Eggless Pasta recipe.

8 ounces ricotta

4 ounces shredded mozzarella

1/4 cup grated parmesan

1/2 tablespoon chopped parsley

Pinch nutmeg

Mix ingredients in food processor or by hand.

Cranberry Compote is Quick, Delicious

A compote made with fresh cranberries is not only beautiful on your holiday table but is packed with antioxidants. It's also quick and easy to make.

I made it through a crowded grocery store with a 6-year-old in tow and was finally at the finish line — the checkout lane — with all the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner when the cashier picked up my bag of fresh cranberries and asked me, “Did you know these are buy-one-get-one-free?” I did not know that. I hesitated a moment. I didn’t want to be one of those people who holds up grocery lines.

But I only hesitated a second before telling her, “I want those.” I still had a lot of items on the conveyor belt, so I was sure I could get to the cranberries and back before she was finished. Besides, you can only get fresh cranberries through December. It was worth the risk of social disapproval to score an extra bag. Actually, now I’m wishing I’d gotten more.

The thing about cranberries is that, due to their high acidity and naturally high levels of antimicrobial compounds, they’ll keep for a long time. Toss a bag of fresh cranberries in the fridge and they’ll stay fresh for up to two months. They’ll keep in the freezer for up to a year.

I have to admit I’m a fairly recent convert to cranberries. Growing up, I never could understand the purpose of that canned purple stuff that appeared at Thanksgiving. My mother made a cranberry mold with orange and walnuts, and that was a little better. But as far as I was concerned, cranberry sauce was an extra that took up valuable real estate that would be better used for more stuffing and gravy.

Then, a few years ago, I discovered how easy fresh cranberries were to cook and how much better a fresh compote tasted than that purple can-shaped lump. I also became aware that cranberries are a nutritional superfood. Cranberries have long been known for their ability to prevent urinary tract infections. According to the Cranberry Institute, cranberries have been shown to contain more antioxidant phenols than 19 commonly eaten fruits. These and other phytonutrients may help protect against heart disease, cancer and other diseases. They also have lots of vitamin C.

After I began making homemade cranberry compote, my husband and I discovered that, as good as it is with Thanksgiving dinner, it’s even better as a topping for pancakes. Some people eat it on sandwiches, though I haven’t gone there yet. However you use it, it’s so easy to make and so healthy that it’s worth stocking up so you have have cranberries throughout the year.

My favorite recipe is the Cranberry Orange Compote is adapted from “The South Beach Diet Parties and Holidays Cookbook” by Arthur Agatston, M.D. (Rodale, 2006). The South Beach recipe is sugar-free, calling for a granular sugar substitute, but I’m a little wary of artificial sweeteners. I’m also wary of the insulin-spiking effects of sugar, so I generally split the difference and use half sugar, half Splenda.

Cranberry Orange Compote

Prep time: 5 minutes   Cook time: 10 minutes

Cranberries simmer with orange zest and a bit of cinnamon.

2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries

1 tablespoon grated orange zest

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup water

1/2 cup granular sugar substitute

Place cranberries, zest, cinnamon and water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until berries have popped and compote has thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in sugar substitute to taste. Serve at room temperature. (Can be made up to one week ahead and refrigerated in a covered container.)

Homemade Sweet Potato Chips: Baked vs. Fried

“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.”

If this Woody Allen quote is true, then God has been having a jolly old time for the last six years watching me trying to raise a child whose diet in any way resembles the healthy way his father and I eat.

Things have not gone according to plan. The plan was that I would eat lots of fruits and vegetables while I was pregnant, introduce him to as many healthy foods as possible while he was an infant and by the time he was a toddler we’d happily gather around the table each night to feast on vegetables, whole grains and lean protein.

The reality was that by the time he was four I resorted to bribery. I hung a big yellow posterboard in the kitchen, upon which I’d drawn little pictures of all kinds of produce. I bought stickers that had stars or “Good Job!” on them. I’d read that it could take 10 exposures for a child to accept a vegetable, so the deal was that each time he tried an item he’d get a sticker, and when he had 10 stickers next to one fruit or vegetable, he’d get a prize. I kept that poster on the wall for nearly two years, and in that time we awarded two prizes, for apples (with caramel dip) and bananas (with chocolate syrup and marshmallows).

Sweet potato chips cool after being baked at 200 degrees for 50 minutes, turned over and then baked another 30-40 minutes.

I haven’t given up. I’m still constantly asking him to try new things, though I have also resorted to “Deceptively Delicious”-style tactics of hiding fruit and vegetable purees in kid-friendly foods such as mac and cheese. This is very high-maintenance, so I’ll be glad when he’ll just eat steamed broccoli like everyone else.

Lately I’ve been on a snack food attack, looking for ways to minimize the number of chemical ingredients in the lunchbox and even sneak in some vegetables if possible. I got lucky in the health food aisle one day when Trevor said he’d try Terra Spiced Sweet Potato Chips and Sweets & Beets. The ingredient lists on each were simple: Sweet potatoes, oil and some seasonings for the spiced chips; sweet potatoes, beets and oil for the Sweets & Beets. The oils listed were canola and/or sunflower and safflower oil. Turns out, it is apparently possible to manufacture food without corn syrup or hydrogenated fats! Amazing!

The chips barely made it through the night at our house, though partly because my husband is a big fan of sweet potatoes, at least in chip and french-fry form. We love Alexia Spicy Sweet Potato fries.

When I have time I’ll make spicy sweet potato fries myself because it’s cheaper. The sweet potato chips weren’t the cheapest thing in the store either, so if my family liked them that much, I thought I would try to make them myself.

I decided to try baked chips first, since that’s obviously healthier than frying. I settled on Martha Stewart’s recipe. It involved slicing the potatoes thinly using a mandoline, spreading them on parchment-covered baking sheets and baking them in a 200-degree oven, then allowing them to cool.

Since I don't own a deep fryer, I fried my sweet potato chips in a saucepan using a digital thermometer to keep the oil at 350 degrees.

I followed the instructions, and until the cooling part they looked pretty much like the store-bought chips. But after cooling they were still soft in the middle. I’m not going to blame the recipe here; I live in Florida, which for baking purposes would be ranked just under rain forest in humidity levels. I popped the chips back into the oven for another 10 minutes or so (I confess, at 400 degrees, because that was the temperature the oven was on when I was cooking dinner), then left them to dry again.

Throughout the process, my son kept asking if he could try one, so when they were finally cooled a second time I gave him one to try. He put it in his mouth and gave me the wide-eyed, open-mouthed, squishy-faced “yuck!” expression. “It’s hard!” he told me before asking if he could spit the chip into the trash.

He was right, to some extent. It wasn’t a potato chip texture; it was more the texture of those dried banana chips that you get in trail mix. Not inedible, but not what we were looking for.

So I decided to try another batch, this time frying them. My Internet search for recipes was not a difficult one. When frying, all paths lead to Paula Deen or the Neelys. When searching for recipes on the Internet, I usually look at a few recipes and try to arrive at a consensus, then put my spin on it. Paula’s recipe called for slightly thicker slices, fried in vegetable oil and seasoned with her recipe for House Seasoning. The Neelys’ recipe called for peanut oil and was seasoned with ancho chili powder, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Both recipes called for frying the chips in 350-degree oil for about three minutes.

I don’t own a deep fryer, so I used a medium-sized saucepan and heated the oil using a digital thermometer. I used a mix of Smart Balance oil and canola because that’s what I had. It took three batches for one potato, but when they were done they looked pretty much like the store-bought chips, and they were crisp. I tested a few seasoning mixes I had on hand and the clear winner was Cajun seasoning.

Fried sweet potato chips, left, were more crisp and colorful than the baked version, right.

The verdict: Since the whole point was to get my son to eat sweet potatoes and he spit out his first taste of the baked version, I probably won’t make those again, though I’ll eat the chips myself. My husband and I loved the fried chips. My son, so far, has not been persuaded to try them. He has been enthusiastically devouring shelled peanuts, however. Woohoo! A legume!

Cooking Up a Major Mess of Collard Greens

Over the weekend I took advantage of a sunny and unscheduled Saturday afternoon and did what I should do every week, which is go to a nearby farmers market to stock up on fresh vegetables. I went without a list, hoping I would find something there to inspire meals for the next few days. This is the ideal, cheffy way to do it, but recent weeks have been so busy that I’ve been making grocery lists based on a few favorite quick-and-easy meals, grabbing the ingredients from the grocery store and bypassing the farmers market altogether.

Strolling through the familiar, busy aisles in the farmers market section of the Daytona Flea & Farmers Market, I was reminded why it’s worth going a bit out of my way to shop there for produce. While vendors at this market do ship in some foreign items, in case you just have to have asparagus in November, there is also a nice variety of ever-changing local, seasonal produce. Though I’ll often check the Florida Department of Agriculture’s “What’s in Season Now” shopping list before I go, there are usually some surprises. This week, it was a handwritten sign touting locally grown collard greens.

The collard greens were piled high, still on their stalks, tied together in bundles the size of shrubs. I pointed out to the vendor that I live with a Northerner and a 6-year-old, so it was likely that only one out of three family members would eat collards, but she was apparently not going to take pity on me and break up a bunch. They cook way down, she pointed out. I knew that, but cooking down three truckloads of greens into one truckload is still a truckload of greens. I have storage issues.

But I really wanted those collard greens. I’d just read in a story by Elizabeth Brown, M.S., R.D., in the November issue of Oxygen magazine that they are the top leafy green when it comes to lowering cholesterol, a particular concern in our family. They’re also known cancer fighters and are rich in the B vitamin folate, which supports heart health. It has also been a while since I’d challenged my husband to try a new vegetable. It would be a challenge for me, too, since I’d never tried to cook collards before. The vendor put them in a large plastic bag (they were too big to fit in my reusable bag) and I was on my way to cookin’ up a mess of greens.

Collard greens are a nutritional powerhouse. Find them at farmers markets to enjoy now, and freeze some for later.

Oxygen had offered a recipe for Collard Greens with Root Veggies and Salmon, a “clean eating” way to include some of the greens in a healthy diet by steaming them in parchment with the fish and vegetables. But their recipe called for only 6 leaves and I had at least 10 times that. Besides, having grown up eating greens in Arkansas, my natural instincts were telling me there should be pork involved, and my preference was bacon.

A quick search online led me to a recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon at SimplyRecipes.com. Scanning the ingredient list, I knew I had a winner: bacon, onion, garlic, apple cider vinegar and, for my husband, a little hot sauce. Another plus was that the recipe called for simmering the greens in a skillet with the other ingredients just until wilted rather than stewing them for hours. We’re used to eating a lot of steamed and sauteed vegetables and appreciate a little more crunch. In the case of collards, this turned out to be more of a nice chewiness.

If you’d like a vegetarian option, this recipe for Collards Braised in Red Wine, adapted from chef Michael Lomonako, appeared in the Mark Bittman‘s Diner’s Journal in the New York Times. Using a similar technique, it contains olive oil rather than bacon fat, and red wine instead of apple cider vinegar. I plan to try this one next.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I’d be dealing with, so I decided to tackle the collards as soon as I got home rather than wait until dinnertime. This turned out to be a good plan. After removing the leaves from the stems and washing them, I had enough leaves piled on my kitchen counter to fill a large trash bag. This was an interesting situation. I decided to go ahead and cook the recipe, which would probably cook down a third of the greens. I didn’t, however, have enough ingredients on hand to cook three batches.

I noticed when I sliced the greens into strips for the recipe they took up much less space, so I decided to slice them all into strips. Could I freeze them? Yes, it turns out, you can freeze fresh collards after blanching them first. Here’s how:

The recipe for Collard Greens with Bacon turned out to be delicious. One bite and I was suddenly transported back to my mother’s kitchen, watching her stir a big pot of greens on the stove. To go with them, I decided to make whole-wheat-panko-crusted catfish and sweet potato fries. Now, I am a Southern girl, so I know the catfish should have been coated in seasoned cornmeal and fried, and there should have been cornbread or at least  hush puppies with those greens, but I’m a health-conscious Southern girl and am married to a guy who really loves sweet potato fries. Life is full of compromises. However, though we may have compromised on tradition, we didn’t miss a thing when it came to taste or nutrition.

Clowns and Dolls: ’50s Cakes Were Scary

This month I’m spending a couple of hours each week in a cake decorating class learning how to make flowers out of buttercream frosting, gum paste and fondant. This is my second cake-decorating class; I spent eight hours in August earning a certificate in The Wilton Method Decorating Basics.

Judging by this image from "The Homemaker's Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating," less was not more for the brides of 1954.

This makes no sense for a couple of reasons. First of all, to be honest, I don’t really like cake. Sure, I can be tempted by pretty much anything chocolate, and a fresh, homemade carrot cake or coconut cake may turn my head, but for the most part, your standard office party bakery cake isn’t worth the extra calories. Plus, there’s the  icing. The day I found out bakery buttercream contains neither butter nor cream but is mostly shortening and powdered sugar was the last day I was able to enjoy those office cakes. I don’t know why, when I am so in love with butter and bacon, I’m so repelled by shortening, but I am.

So, why am I spending hours up to my elbows in powdered sugar and shortening? I have a 6-year-old son who’s allergic to eggs, and most bakeries don’t do eggless cakes.

There are a lot of cake-infested situations in a first-grader’s life. Mostly I handle this by keeping eggless cupcakes in the freezer. Whenever there’s a birthday party, I pull one out and frost it and take it along to the party so Trevor doesn’t have to sit and watch all the other kids eat cake. But Trevor has his own birthdays, and he deserves cakes that are just as cool as his friends’ cakes. OK, maybe cooler. “Happy birthday from your obsessively competitive mommy!”

Little Bobby required years of therapy after finding this cupcake clown on his plate.

When my mother-in-law found out I was taking the cake classes, she gave me the book her mother had used when she took Wilton cake-decorating classes in the 1950s, “The Homemaker’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Modern Cake Decorating” by McKinley Wilton and Norman Wilton. Flipping through the pages, I immediately fell in love with this book. All of the color pictures have that pastel, slightly out of focus look, like Doris Day in “That Touch of Mink.” Even though I know in reality it couldn’t be the case, I like to imagine there was a time when life’s colors were soft and sharp edges were blurred, when my son might have asked for a simple cowboy cake instead of Transformers.

Scary doll cake circa 1954: Take naked scary doll. Insert scary doll into Bundt cake. Cover cake and scary doll up to armpits with buttercream.

Though I recognized many of the techniques illustrated in the book, it was immediately apparent that cake styles have changed in the decades since it was published. For the most part, this appears to be a good thing. Compared to today’s wedding cakes, elegantly covered in sheets of smooth fondant with restrained displays of gum paste flowers or themed patterns, wedding cakes in the ’50s were riots of buttercream, royal icing and spun sugar. Why have just one border on each layer when you can have six or seven? Lace, ruffles, roses, birds — they only stopped when they ran out of cake to cover. Intervention was clearly needed. “Harry, put down the pastry bag and step away from the turntable. These nice men are going to take you to a lovely place where you can get some rest.”

Cake themes have changed with the times as well. Little boys and girls in those days would be happy with a simple piped-on rendition of an astronaut or a ballerina instead of whatever major movie marketing campaign had the biggest hold on them at the moment.

There is one cake theme that has, unfortunately, survived to this day, and that is the clown cake.

Dolls, frankly, creep me out a little bit, so I'm hoping the doll cake trend stays safely stuck in the 1950s.

First of all, let me just say right here that I do not like clowns. Clowns are scary. Looking at both modern clown cakes (you can see some here at Cakewrecks.com) and the ones in the book, it appears that the cake decorators may have intended to make happy clowns (as though such a thing existed), but clowns are just inherently scary.

Fortunately, another scary ’50s cake trend seems to remain safely in the past, and that’s the doll cake. OK, I know there are a lot of people out there who collect dolls and love them. I had dolls, too, when I was a little girl. But as an adult I have come to realize something: Dolls are scary. Doll collections — a room full of dolls just staring at your with their lifeless plastic eyes? Scary. There was an episode of “Ghosthunters” in which the property being investigated had one room filled with dolls. Dolls in the dark. This was more frightening than the prospect of a ghost popping out, if you ask me.

For certain ’50s situations, however, it was apparently the custom to take a scary, lifeless-eyed figure, stand her up in a cake and surround her with layer upon layer of buttercream borders, ruffles and roses. Sugarcoated, but still scary.

So you won’t be seeing any clown cakes or doll cakes from me. The scariest thing I’ve done so far was when I tried an experimental tinting technique on a fall-themed anniversary cake. It was supposed to be burgundy mums surrounded by a cascade of fall-colored leaves. It ended up looking like three sea urchins on a bed of bacon strips. But we learn our lessons and move on. The only thing that matters is that every April one little guy has the coolest birthday cake ever.