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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Slow Cooker Beef Ragu

Apologies for the radio silence yesterday. I spent Monday night into Tuesday morning on a delayed red eye flight from San Francisco to Chicago and I am paying for those 2.75 hours of sleep hard today. That flight was on the heels of a long weened of wine tasting in Napa, so you can imagine how wiped out I am feeling today. I still need to process my vacation and figure out how to tell you about all of the great food and amazing wine, but for today: a recipe.


This recipe post is a bit belated (because we actually made it over the holidays), but after having so much delicious Italian food in Napa it only feels appropriate to share it now. Plus, it's a delicious cozy slow cooker dinner and winter is still not over so it's doubly appropriate right now.



Alex and I spent an extended holiday up at my parents' cabin in northern Michigan where we pretty much relaxed, played in the snow, cooked, ate, and drank for almost 2 weeks. While we were up there, we made homemade enchiladas, tortilla soup, roasted chicken, a glazed ham, and this delicious slow cooker beef ragu with homemade gnocchi. We used this recipe to make the amazingly soft homemade gnocchi, but I had a little more fun coming up with a sauce for it. I love the combination of these little potato dumplings with a hearty meaty sauce. Especially up a the cabin, it felt like the perfect winter dinner-- like an Italian-inspired meat and potatoes dinner.


Aside from a little prep work at the beginning, this slow cooked sauce is pretty easy to make. Fresh veggies, canned tomatoes, and chuck roast are combined with some Italian seasonings and red wine to create a thick and flavorful sauce. After browning the beef and sauteing the vegetables, the ingredients are all combined in the slow cooker for several hours to get that great depth of flavor that you can only get from slow cooking. Browning beforehand is important-- it's what lends to that slow cooked quality of the sauce. Shredding the beef at the end of the process helps to thicken and bring this sauce together and prevent it from feeling more like a stew and less like a sauce. Serve this over gnocchi (fresh or prepared), polenta, or a hearty cut of pasta like penne or papardelle.


Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 lb. beef chuck roast, trimmed and cubed
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 3 carrots, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbs. tomato paste
  • 3/4 cup dry red wine
  • 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
  • 1-1/4 cups low sodium beef broth
  • 2 Tbs. butter
  • 1 tsp. fresh rosemary, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 tsp. dry oregano
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1 dry bay leaf
  • 1 tsp. red wine vinegar
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Cooked gnocchi or pasta, for serving

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the beef, season with salt and pepper, and cook until evenly browned on all sides. Use a slotted spoon the transfer the beef to the base of a slow cooker.

In the same pan, add onions and carrots and cook for 4 minutes, stirring often. Add garlic and saute for another 2 minutes, stirring often. Stir in the tomato paste and wine and cook for 5 minutes, using a spoon or spatula to pull up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan. Remove from heat and pour mixture into the slow cooker with the beef.

To the slow cooker mixture, add tomatoes, beef broth, butter, spices (rosemary through red pepper flakes), the bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper. Stir to combine and cook on Low for 7 hours, stirring once or twice, if possible.

Use two forks to roughly shred the beef into smaller chunks. Add the vinegar, increase the temperature of the slow cooker to High, and cook uncovered for additional 30 min. to thicken.

Gently fold cooked gnocchi or pasta into the ragu and ladle into serving bowls. Serve with Parmesan cheese.


Editor's Note: Inspired by an original recipe by Seasons & Suppers.


A Squared

Monday, March 2, 2015

Spinach & Farro Salad with Roasted Tomato Balsamic Vinaigrette

If you haven't already figured out here, I'm a Planner with a capital P. I meticulously plan out vacations, had about a dozen spreadsheets going when planning my wedding, and pore over our finances to plan for the condo we just bought and the retirement I hope to one day enjoy. I've also been planning out our weekly dinner menus for the past several years. It helps me stay organized and on budget and prevents us (most of the time) from throwing our hands up on a Thursday night and just ordering pizza when we have no food in the house.


One thing I am so bad at though, is planning out my weekly lunches. I don't know why that is, but it's like I have a mental block about shopping for and preparing a lunch to bring to the office every day and then I end up scrambling for leftovers, unsatisfying random combinations of foods, or resorting to pricey lunchtime takeout. I dropped the ball again with planning a lunch menu last week, but was determined not to result to the aforementioned randomness or takeout. So, I scoured my kitchen and created a salad with the contents that I found there. The final product was delicious, filling, and quote healthy.


Farro is a wonderful grain to use in salads. It has a great chewy texture and nutty flavor and it doesn't get mushy when combined with a dressing and being refrigerated for a few days. I combined the farro with finely diced bell peppers and chopped fresh spinach-- both of which hold up in a salad as well-- and some toasted sliced almonds for protein and crunch. The star here is really the dressing though: a balsamic vinaigrette made with roasted tomatoes and red onions. Some of the tomatoes burst in the roasting process, yielding flavorful juice that becomes the base of this dressing. The flavor is deep and tangy and it's a great addition to this salad or to any salad. Topped off with a little crumbled goat cheese, this is a perfectly balanced and satisfying lunch. Mission: accomplished.


Ingredients:

  • 10 oz. grape tomatoes
  • 1/2 medium red onion, cut into 1/2-inch dice
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 3 Tbs. olive oil, divided
  • 2 Tbs. balsamic vinegar, divided
  • Salt and pepper, to taste 
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • 1/2 tsp. dry parsley
  • 2 cups cooked farro
  • 3 cups fresh spinach leaves, stems removed and rough chopped
  • 1/2 cup diced red bell pepper
  • 1/2 cup diced yellow bell pepper
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds, toasted
  • 1/4 cup crumbled goat cheese

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine tomatoes, onion, garlic, 2 Tbs. olive oil, 1 Tbs. balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. Pour onto baking sheet and roast for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside until cook enough to handle.

Carefully pour the contents of the baking sheet back into the bowl, including any liquid. Add remaining olive oil, vinegar, honey, and parsley. Stir to combine, pressing gently on some of the softened tomatoes to release some of the juices.

In a separate large bowl, add farro, spinach, bell peppers, and almonds. Pour the tomato vinaigrette over the top and toss gently to combine. Add crumbled goat cheese to the top and serve.


A Squared

Thursday, February 26, 2015

COOKGIRL Launch Party at Little Goat

One of the things that keeps me blogging even when life gets busy is the cool experiences that I get to take part in. I was recently invited to an event that turned out to be a total "pinch me" moment and even writing this right now, I feel really privileged to have been a part of it!


The event was the launch party for COOKGIRL, a website dedicated to celebrating female chefs. COOKGIRL kicked off its mission in Chicago, honoring a handful of the city's favorite female chefs and asking a few local female food bloggers to weigh in on their foodie favorites.

image via
So to celebrate the launch of the site, this handful of bloggers, small group of chefs, and a few other members of the media were all invited to an intimate dinner at Little Goat. The dinner was so surreal-- no more than 20 of us in the room and we were rubbing elbows and dining with some of Chicago's most renowned chefs like Carrie Nahabedian (NAHA, Brindille), Mindy Segal (Hot Chocolate), and Zoe Schor (Ada Street).


As if that wasn't already cool enough, we were dining in the private room at Little Goat where chef Stephanie Izard (Girl & the Goat, Little Goat) and her team were preparing dinner for us in the open kitchen. I've dined at both Girl & the Goat and Little Goat Diner and both were amazing, but being here in this intimate group with chef Stephanie speaking to us about the menu she customized and prepared for us was pretty amazing.


And chef Stephanie's menu did not disappoint. I love her food because it always feels unique, but still approachable. And while Girl & the Goat is one of the hottest reservations in Chicago, the atmosphere is warm and inviting and not stuffy.


We started dinner with a delicious salad served family style: thinly shaved kohlrabi, kale, and fennel tossed with toasted almonds in a ginger dressing. It had a really great smoky flavor and reminded me that I love kohlrabi and should start cooking with it more often!



Known for her use of goat meat in her cooking, chef Stephanie's next course was a generous plate of goat empanadas. Flaky pastry was stuffed with tender goat meat and served warm with radish, queso fresco, and a deliciously creamy miso-harissa aioli.


The next dish was one of my favorites: pierogies stuffed with creamy celery root puree and topped with tangy brown butter kimchee. Give me the whole plate now, please!


For a fish course, chef Stephanie served a single large scallop. It was seared perfectly and served with tart grapefruit segments, avocado, garlic chives, and a spicy Asian sesame oil.


Next up: lamb ribs. How beautiful is this plating? The ribs were fall off the bone tender and were topped with crunchy marcona almonds and a root veggie caponata.


Another favorite dish of the night was a simple vegetable side, but one that I have tried and loved at Girl & the Goat too. This perfectly roasted cauliflower is caramelized and served with pickled peppers, pine nuts, and fresh mint. I love that savory roasted cauliflower with the briny and slightly spicy pickled peppers. So good!


And finally, sauteed shrimp and pork belly served with fried grains and noodles, served with some shaved vegetables in a light tamarind vinaigrette.


Dessert came out in two rounds: the first was a mini citrus pavlova. Crunchy meringue served with blood orange semifreddo (it tasted like cotton candy!), yuzu curd, and candied kumquats.


Along with the pavlova, a selection of Little Goat Bread's signature cookies: "wookie pies" -- chocolate cream filling sandwiched between two little chocolate cakes, s'mores cookies -- my favorite of the bunch, and an only slightly sweet cashew cookie.

It was a really wonderful meal and such an impressive group of ladies-- both the chefs and the women behind COOKGIRL!


A Squared

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What's For Dinner Wednesday: Pancetta Baked Scallops

Sometimes I run out of creative ways to prepare seafood. It's not as versatile as chicken or pork and since I only make fish for dinner once a week at the most, I sometimes feel a little creatively stifled... and end up making the same handful of recipes all the time. Recently though, Alex requested scallops for dinner and I had a flashback of these delicious baked scallops that my mom made once when I was visiting and I decided to try my hand at the recipe.


When my mom sent the recipe I realized that it was very similar to Shrimp DeJonghe, a breaded shrimp dish baked in a garlic wine butter sauce made famous here in Chicago in the early twentieth century. It's a simple, but delicious way to prepare shrimp and works equally well with the scallops in this recipe. Baking and breading it keeps the seafood tender and juicy and infuses some great flavor into it.


The original version of this recipe featured the simple, yet tried and true combination of scallops topped with vermouth, lemon juice, butter, garlic powder, and crushed Ritz crackers. I gave the recipe a little update, first swapping the vermouth for Sauvignon Blanc because I hate buying a whole bottle of alcohol that I won't use when only a little bit is required for a recipe. I then swapped the Ritz crackers for crunchy panko and added fresh garlic and thyme for a punch of flavor in the topping.


The real game changer in this recipe though, is the addition of pancetta. The pancetta is sauteed in the pan before the scallops and the rest of the ingredients are added, so the savory saltiness is rendered into the pan and the scallops cook in it and take on that flavor... it's just delicious. And after baking that pancetta adds a nice crispiness to the tender scallops.

This is a pretty easy dinner to make. We enjoyed it for a Sunday dinner, but it would be a great one to serve at a dinner party as well.


Ingredients:
  • 2 oz. pancetta, diced
  • 1/2 lb. scallops
  • 1 Tbs. butter
  • 1/2 Tbs. olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2 Tbs. grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/3 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 Tbs. dry white wine *I prefer Sauvignon Blanc in this one

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat a cast iron skillet (or other oven-safe pan) over medium high heat. Add pancetta and saute until golden and crispy. Remove pan from heat and immediately add butter to melt. Swirl in olive oil and set aside.

Wash the scallops and pat dry with a paper towel. Add the scallops to the skillet and place them about 1/2-inch apart.

Ina small bowl, combine Parmesan and remaining 7 ingredients (through white wine). Stir inSpoon the mixture over the top of the scallops and drizzle lightly with olive oil.

Cover and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, uncover and bake for an additional 10 minutes. Optional: Broil for 3-5 minutes for a crispier topping.

Remove from oven and serve hot.


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