the ole standby

Everyone has that dish that they make over and over again. It's the meal you can rely on, the one that's quick to make, tastes delicious, and always hits the spot. It doesn't matter if your standby comes from a box, a bag, or you make it from scratch, it's there for you when you don't have the time. 

It's been one of those weeks... early mornings, late nights, hard workouts (ugh). When I'm having one of those days, or even those weeks, I turn to spinach chicken. No clever name, no complicated recipe... just quick, easy, simple food that hits the spot. About 2 years into dating Matt one of our friends asked him what his favorite dish I made was. He replied "Spinach Chicken". "What?!" I said. Really? He's so easy to please! I'll take it! 

If you're having one of those weeks, heck, even if you're not... spinach chicken can be your new best friend too!

Spinach Chicken
yields 5 - 6 servings

5-6 chicken breasts
1 shallot minced
2-3 garlic cloves minced
3 c. spinach leaves
4 T. (1 good glug) white wine - i like chardonnay, use what you have...
2 oz reduced fat cream cheese (about ¼ c.)
2 T. parmesan cheese
salt + pepper

Preheat oven to 350º. In a saucepan, heat a small drizzle of oil in the bottom of the pan. I use olive oil but anything to coat the bottom of the pan will do. Once pan heats up, add shallot. After 3 - 4 minutes add the garlic and cook one minute more. Add spinach and let it start to wilt. Once spinach starts to cook down a bit, add white wine (the steam will help it wilt completely). Finally add cream cheese and parmesan cheese. Salt and pepper to taste.

On a baking sheet, line your chicken breasts. Evenly spread cheese mixture over chicken breasts and cook in oven for about 15 - 20 minutes until chicken is cooked through. It may take more or less time depending on the thickness and size of your chicken breasts. 

Serve with your favorite side(s). I usually do roasted potatoes and veggies or brown rice. You can even chop it up and place it over your favorite pasta. 

improv style:
the recipe is very flexible... basically you're creating a flavor spread to bake chicken with. if you don't have cream cheese you can use mascarpone, goat cheese, ricotta, or even brie! full fat, fat free, any work... the only thing you sacrifice with fat free is texture and a little flavor (it all depends on what your preference is). add a dash or worsteshire or dijon mustard to add more flavor. you can substitute yellow or sweet onions for the shallots or leave them out if you're not a fan. LOVE garlic?! add more... don't like wine? don't put it in. you can usually substitute chicken stock or any basic stock when a recipe calls for booze. also, adding in some mushrooms to this mixture would be so tasty! you can add your favorite veggies... red bell peppers, arugula, kale, sun dried tomatoes, eggplant - you get my drift?! mix and match your favorites! it's a really flexible recipe and very forgiving.


NUTS for pie

A few weeks ago my family came to town for a little visit. It was the first time since moving to Chicago that they came to town. I was so excited for them to see our new place and our new city.

Growing up, whenever guests would come to visit, my mom always made sure to have their favorite foods stocked in our pantry. It was her way of making people feel at home in our home. And while our apartment is way too small to host my 3 sisters and my parents for 3 nights, I wanted them to feel the same way at our place. To say I'm my mother's daughter would be the understatement of the year.

My dad goes CRAZY for macadamia nuts. My mom can never keep a can in our house without him finding and depleting her entire supply. She even hides the container deep in the pantry. It's like my dad has a super mac nut radar. One year my dad found the can and left an IOU note inside the empty canister. When my mom went to bake her fully-loaded cookies she was short 2 cups of nuts, left only with a cheeky note from my dad. He is a piece of work... and I love him for it!

I knew when my family came to visit that I wanted to make something special for him. I decided to combine 2 of my dad's favorite things and make him his dream dessert (more like what I imagined his dream dessert to be)! He has a weakness for key lime pie so I combined the custard of a key lime pie with a macadamia nut crust, HELLO!

The look on his face when he ate that dessert was priceless. THIS is why I love to cook. To bring smiles to peoples faces and joy to their bellies. I had such an amazing time while my family was in town. I wish they could have stayed longer! 

Key Lime Pie with Macadamia Nut Crust
from alton brown and cooking weekends
for the crust
1 ¼ c. toasted macadamia nuts
½ c. panko bread crumbs
¼ c. sugar
2 T. flour
¼ t. salt
4 T melted butter

for the filling
¾ c. key lime juice (about 10-12 limes)
1 T. lime zest (from 2 limes)
4 egg yolks
1 - 14 oz can sweetened condensed milk

for the topping
1 c. whipping cream
2 T. powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375º. For the crust, lightly toast your nuts in a pan on the stovetop or in an oven. Be careful not to burn your nuts! Set them aside and let them cool. Once cooled, place in a food processor and pulse until they're a fine powder. Add panko, sugar, flour, and salt - give it a few pulses until combined. Pour the melted butter over the mixture and dump in a pie dish (you can use a spring form or tart pan also). Press the mixture into an even layer that comes half way up the side of the dish.  Bake for 10 minutes. Note the crust won't be fully cooked, that's ok. It will finish cooking once you place the custard in it and bake it off!

While the tart is baking, you can assemble your filling. Squeeze juice from about 10 limes until you have ¾ c. of lime juice. In a medium bowl, whisk condensed milk and egg yolks together. Then add zest and lime juice. I like my filling really tart. If you like yours on the sweeter side you can use less lime juice. I find the zest adds a lot of flavor to the tart. If you don't like the consistency, you can definitely leave it out.

Pour the mixture into the baked crust and cook for an additional 15 minutes until the custard is set. It's done when the filling is firm but still jiggles. Let cool for an hour and then place in fridge for at least 4 hours (you want it to get cold... if it's cold enough for you after 1, 2... you get the idea). You can even make this the day before and add the whipped topping right before serving.

For the whipped topping, place heavy cream in a bowl and beat on high until soft peaks form. Add sugar and vanilla extract and continue whipping until firm peaks form. Place in a piping bag or ziplock bag with a hole cut in the corner and pipe onto the outer edge of the pie. You want to make sure your pie is all the way chilled or the whipped topping will just melt onto the tart. 

improv style:
the first place to change this recipe is the crust. you can do a traditional graham cracker crust, use vanilla wafers, or substitute the macadamia nuts for your favorite nut. i'm not a big fan of graham crackers so i'm always looking for new crusts to make. I took a crust recipe from one pie and combined it with the filling of another. BAKING IS NOT WRITTEN IN STONE, you can alter it any way you like! all you have to do is use common sense... keep the liquid equal and keep the dry ingredients equal. 

the second place you can improvise is with the filling. i actually cheated and used regular limes because my grocery store didn't have any key limes. it turned out just the same to me! you can leave out the zest or use less if the texture bothers you. i like A LOT of lime flavor to come through and the zest makes all the difference in the world for that. if you like your pie on the sweeter side, you can use ½ c. lime juice instead. also, you don't have to use fresh limes. you can buy the bottled juice and it will still turn out. i prefer fresh but that's how i like to cook. if you can't be bothered to squeeze limes, don't!