Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cooking with Jalapeno-Cayenne Cheese

Last weekend we had a party and I served a great cheese that I found at Costco. It was in a wedge with wax similar to a Gouda, it had the creaminess of Gouda, but it was actually a cheddar with jalapenos and cayenne pepper.

After the party I had about half of the wedge left, so I decided to use it up this week.

The first thing I made was a Creamy Hot Pepper Pasta -

  • Cook pasta - I used rotini - drain, and set aside.
  • While pasta is cooking, heat 1 tbsp each of olive oil and butter in a large pan.
  • Add sliced red pepper, green pepper, and white onion.
  • When peppers/onions are soft, add 1 tsp flour (you may need to add a touch more butter to help with the roux).
  • Add 1/2 cup light cream and bring to a simmer
  • Add about 1/3 cup chopped cheese and stir until the cheese is melted and the sauce is thick and creamy.
  • Toss pasta into the sauce, season with salt if needed, and garnish with fresh cilantro.

This pasta was good, but not as hot as I thought it would be..the cheese is very hot when eaten alone! If I made this again I'd add some cayenne and red pepper flakes to the sauce to keep that kick.

Last night I made a Hot Pepper Cheese Stuffed Chicken - (and forgot to take a picture..)

  • Trim chicken breasts and pound thin; I like using the thinly sliced breasts and pounding them just a bit more.
  • Sprinkle each breast with salt, pepper, a dash of chili powder, and a dash of cayenne pepper
  • Top each breast with a few slices of the cheese and roll. Use a toothpick to keep them closed.
  • Drizzle each one with some olive oil, and then sprinkle with bread crumbs.
  • Bake on 375-400 for 15-20 minutes, until chicken is fully cooked. I also turned on the broiler for the last 2 minutes.

Some cheese oozed out of the chicken creating a delicious sauce. These were excellent and so easy.

Finally, tonight I used the cheese to make a Hot Pepper Mac-N-Cheese -

  • Cook 1/2 pound of pasta in salted water until al dente (tonight I chose medium shells); drain and set aside
  • Heat 1 tbsp butter and 1 tsp olive oil in a pan/pot
  • Add chopped peppers and onions - I used 1 jalapeno, 1/3 of a red pepper, and 1 green onion chopped into tiny pieces. Saute about 2 minutes.
  • Add 1 tsp flour and stir.
  • Add 12 oz of milk or cream; I used a mixture of whole milk and light cream.
  • Bring to a simmer and then add cheese. I used a good amount of the hot cheese as well as some regular cheddar.
  • Toss with pasta and transfer to a baking dish. Top pasta with some more cheese and bake on 375 for about 25 minutes, until hot and bubbly.

This was good, but the cheese definitely mellows out when cooked. Adding the chopped jalapenos and red peppers gave it nice color, texture, and we got some heat from the jalapenos.


The night that we had the pasta we enjoyed a bottle of Showket Vineyards Cabernet, a 2000 from Napa. It was a bit expensive for a weeknight bottle - about $50 - but we both raved about it. The wine had beautiful color, was very full bodied and complex, and had a taste similar to the oaky flavor of Cakebread Cab, another favorite of ours. I'd highly recommend this for a splurge bottle. Their website says that the 2005 has just been released and is one of the most complex wines they have ever released - we'll have to look for it!!

Time for a Party

I love this time of year - warm during the day, cool at night, and everyone just seems happier than in the middle of January! What a perfect excuse for a party.

Last Saturday night we had about 15 of our friends over for a casual gathering on our deck. Since I was traveling all week before the party, I planned out a simple menu that could be prepped all in one day.

My homemade pico de gallo
Stasia's guacamole
Tortilla pinwheels
Marinated and grilled chicken skewers with cilantro cream
Crab and asparagus dip
Cheese and crackers
Vegetable crudite
Jenny's chocolate chip cake

I took two pictures of the setup at the beginning of the night, and then totally forgot about taking pictures of anything or anyone once things got going!! I blame it on the wine...

My Homemade Pico de Gallo
This is something Jon begs me to make almost every weekend in the summer. It is very simple and delicious and reminds me of being in Mexico.

- Chop and mix 10 tomatoes, 2-4 jalapenos with or without seeds, 1 small white onion, 1/2 bunch of fresh cilantro, and about 1 tbsp salt. Chill and serve with tortilla chips.
Here is a picture of the pico from another time that I made it.

Stasia's Guacamole
I love Stasia's guacamole - it is always perfectly creamy and green. This is what she does:


  • 8 soft Haas Avocadoes, save a few of the pits
  • 1 sweet onion, preferably vidalia, diced
  • 2 limes (or to taste)
  • Cilantro, chopped (to taste), remove stems as best you can
  • Sea salt (to taste)
  • Mash avocadoes with a fork to remove large chunks. Add onion, cilantro, lime, and sea salt.
  • Keep a few of the pits to put in the guacamole when it is done as this helps to keep it from turning green.
Stasia's Tip: If you buy avocadoes that are too firm for guacamole, place them in a brown bag overnight and this speeds up the ripening process.

Tortilla Pinwheels
These bite sized appetizers are always a hit - I never have leftovers.


  • 10 large flour tortillas
  • 1 cup chopped veggies - I like using red and green peppers, red onion, and celery.
  • 1.5 blocks cream cheese, softened
  • 1 package dry ranch dressing mix
  • 1/4 cup salsa
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • Mix cream cheese with ranch mix and salsa
  • Spread mixture onto tortilla; top with chopped veggies and cheddar cheese. Roll and place in a casserole dish and refrigerate for at least 6 hours. I like to keep them in the fridge overnight.
  • Chop off the end of each tortilla and discard (or eat as you go along...); chop tortilla into bite sized pieces and serve. Each tortilla should give you 6-8 pieces.

Chicken Skewers with Cilantro Cream
This appetizer includes another one of Jon's marinades. I sliced 15 chicken breasts into 3 pieces each and Jon marinated them in a mixture of tequila, lime juice, olive oil, cumin, and chili powder. They only needed to marinate for about 3 hours; any longer and the lime juice would have started to "cook" the chicken.
Cilantro cream... this is simple, mild, and refreshing and went perfectly with the smokiness of the cumin in the chicken. I mixed 1 cup of sour cream with a handful of chopped fresh cilantro. Let it chill for about 1 hour before serving.

Hot Crab and Asparagus Dip
I found this recipe on the Pillsbury website and changed it up just a bit. I'm not a fan of crab, but everyone said it was great and it went quickly. I served it with crackers (and really wish I had a picture!!).
Ingredients (I doubled this)
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 (8-oz) pkg. cream cheese, softened
  • 1 (10 oz) bag of frozen asparagus (or fresh; original recipe called for canned)
  • 1/2 cup shredded fresh Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons sliced green onions
  • 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 (6-oz.) can crab meat, drained
  • 1/3 cup sliced almonds (I didn't use these)
  • Added: 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
  • Steam asparagus on stove or in microwave
  • In a bowl, combine sour cream, cream cheese, and asparagus
  • Add green onions, horseradish, mustard, crab meat, and cheese. Mix well.
  • Transfer to a baking dish and bake on 375 for 20-25 minutes.

Cheese and Veggies
Cheese is a must at every party! I normally slice all of the cheese onto a plate, but Stasia arranged this cheese tray for me and it looked a lot better than how I usually do it. I had a bowl of garlic and herb Alouette, a wedge of jalapeno-cayenne cheddar that was oh so creamy and delicious, and a wheel of brie.

I loved the way it all looked on this cutting board. Unfortunately I won't be able to use that cute little brie knife again because Jon dropped it into the garbage disposal when he was cleaning up...he blames it on the Scotch, but at least he did all of the clean-up, right??

Jenny loves to bake and brought another great dessert from the Williams-Sonoma recipe collection - Chocolate Chip Cookie Cake. Jenny doubled the recipe and turned it into a layer cake with strawberries in the middle. It was a great cake, not too sweet, and made you feel like you were eating a cookie!

I hope everyone had a great weekend!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Guest Blogger - Jon's Shrimp and Pasta

I teach dance on Monday nights so Jon is on his own for dinner. Unlike most guys who would just order take-out, he takes advantage of being able to cook up some things that I wouldn't eat. Here is his post...

OK – let’s get one thing straight: just because this is Mary Ellen’s blog, and she comes up with some really good dishes, it doesn’t mean that her other half doesn’t know his way around the kitchen. (Although in all honesty, I’m probably better at picking out the wine)

Anyway, occasionally, when she’s out, rather than relying on leftovers or takeout from whatever happens to be nearby, I’ll whip up something halfway decent with whatever I can find. Tonight was a good alternative to spaghetti and meatballs:


  • Shrimp (peeled and de-veined; 21-25 count): use however many you want
  • Lime Juice – 2 oz
  • Olive oil – 2-3 tbsp
  • Garlic – 3-4 cloves (minced or pressed)
  • 2 medium scallions
  • ½ red bell pepper, sliced and halved
  • Chili powder to taste
  • Cayenne pepper to taste
  • Cilantro - 1 tsp
  • Fettuccine Fini – 1 serving


I used frozen shrimp that I had in the house, but certainly fresh would be even better. Clean the shrimp well (I used about 10-12), and pour the lime juice over them in a bowl. You’ll only want to be leave them in for 15 minutes or so, or they’ll start to ‘cook’, and you’ll end up with ceviche instead of what I ended up with!

Side note: I’ve figured out over the past 30-some years that timing really is everything, and this dish is no different. Have all of your other ingredients ready (garlic peeled and minced, peppers and scallions chopped, spices ready) and put the pasta in boiling water. This gives you about 7 minutes or so to cook everything else, pour wine and serve before anything gets mushy, dried out, etc.

After you’ve put the pasta in, start the garlic in olive oil over a med/high skillet, and as soon as it starts to bubble, drain the excess lime juice and toss in the shrimp. I added PLENTY of chili powder (it’s not truly hot – just fairly robust) and a good couple of shakes of cayenne (just for a little heat). After these cooked about a minute or so, I tossed in the scallions, pepper and added the cilantro. Reduce the heat to medium, tossing frequently.

After the pasta is done to your liking, drain it well, and toss it right into the skillet. Toss the pasta in the shrimp to incorporate well, and serve. This is what I ended up with:

Lastly, wine choice is always an important consideration. Considering it’s only Monday, and I was cooking for myself, I decided to go with an inexpensive bottle of Louis M. Martini Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 from Sonoma County. It’s less than $15 a bottle, and for an every day wine, this holds up well to most foods. Now, I understand that 90%+ of the folks out there will insist that this be served with a full-bodied white wine, but I’m a firm believer in enjoying what you like, with what you like, and for me, reds work just fine. Maybe if Mary Ellen lets me do another guest post, I’ll expand on that…


Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sirloin Strips with Broccoli and Red Pepper in a Hoison-Soy Sauce

Sunday is supposed to be my day where I can spend hours cooking, but I just didn't have the time today with work being so busy, even on the weekends. So I decided quick and easy was the way to go tonight.

Sirloin steaks were on sale today, so I decided to do a variation of my
beef and broccoli. I've also made something similar with bok choy and red peppers.


  • 1 pound sirloin steak, trimmed and sliced into thin strips
  • Soy sauce and Worcestershire for the marinade - just enough of each to lightly coat the steak strips
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 green onions, chopped (or a chopped white onion)
  • 1 large head broccoli, chopped into medium florets
  • 1/2 red pepper, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 package dry brown gravy mix, mixed with 1 cup of water
  • 1.5 tsps Hoison sauce
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • Optional: red pepper flakes (I forgot them today!!)


  • Trim the steak, slice into strips, and marinate for a few hours in soy sauce and Worcestershire. You could also add some garlic.
  • Heat 1 tsp olive oil in a large pan; add steak, cook for about 8 minutes (flipping to cook all sides) and then drain the fat
  • Return pan to heat and add the garlic and green onions; saute 2 minutes
  • Add the broccoli and red peppers, saute 1 minute
  • Mix the Hoison sauce with the gravy; add to pan and stir so everything is coated
  • Add the additional soy sauce if needed/desired
  • Turn heat to medium low and let simmer for about 8-10 minutes
  • Serve over rice

Normally I make this dish without the Hoison, and with red pepper flakes, for a spicier version. The addition of the Hoison sauce added a nice sweetness and helped to thicken the sauce. Even better, it only took about 25 minutes from prep to finish!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Appetizer - Polenta Tartlets

My sister and I decided to cook dinner for my mom on Mother's Day. She requested chicken picatta, and since it's a pretty simple dish, I decided to try a new appetizer. I can't cook for only 30 minutes on a Sunday!!

I love polenta, and so does my mom, and I have always wanted to try to make appetizers out of it. I have seen Food Network chefs such as Giada make tartlets with polenta, so I used that idea as inspiration.

My tartlets were 2-bite appetizers with different toppings - roasted tomatoes, garlic, and Parmesan for one, and caramelized onions and brie for another.

I started with a basic herbed polenta. I have made a variety of this before (see this link), and today I did the following:

  • 3 cups chicken broth (vegetable broth for a vegetarian version)
  • 3/4 cup stone ground cornmeal
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 sprig thyme, small leaves removed for use (discard stem)
  • 1 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
  • Optional: shredded cheese, like Parmesan or Asiago


  • Combine broth, garlic, thyme, and parsley in a pot; bring to a boil.
  • Slowly whisk in cornmeal, and continue to whisk until it thickens and starts to separate from the edges of the pot.
  • Add cheese, if desired.

At this point you could eat the polenta, chill it to harden, or bake it with other ingredients. In order to make the tartlets, you need to chill the polenta for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours.

To chill the polenta: transfer the polenta to a large baking dish or a cookie sheet with high edges. It should be about 1/2-3/4 inch deep, or more for larger tartlets. Chill, covered, for at least 3 hours and up to 24 hours.

Tartlet Toppings

I prepared these toppings while the polenta was cooling in the fridge.

Roasted tomato, garlic, and Parmesan: Mix chopped tomatoes, chopped garlic, a pinch of salt, and a drizzle of olive oil for about 20 minutes on 375. The amounts depend on how many tartlets you want to make. I used 5 campari tomatoes and 3 cloves of garlic for 8 small tarts and had a bit leftover.

Caramelized onion and brie: Heat some olive oil and butter in a pan. Add sliced onions (I used 1 onion) and stir over medium heat for about 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. Halfway through cooking, add a pinch each of salt and sugar

Assembling the tartlets...

  • Cover a cookie sheet with parchment paper
  • Once the polenta has hardened, cut it into small circles and transfer to the cookie sheet. I used a small glass to cut them, but a cookie cutter would have worked better.
  • Once all of the circles have been cut, drizzle them slightly and quickly with olive oil.
  • Top each with the toppings - for the tomato tartlet I started with a slice of fresh Parmesan cheese, then added the tomato/garlic mixture. I also added a pinch of shredded Parmesan on top. The onion tartlets started with a small piece of brie topped with the onion mixture.
  • Here is how they looked before going into the oven:

  • Bake the tartlets for about 8-10 minutes on 350.
  • Once they were done I topped the tomato tartlets with a basil leaf, and the onion tartlets with a parsley leaf.
  • And here is the final product:

Because I only had three hours to chill the polenta, they were still a bit soft. Even though they were soft, they were still so yummy and flavorful. I could have eaten just these for dinner! My dad even liked them, and he doesn't like polenta.

Next time I make these, and there will be a next time, I'll definitely make the polenta the day before so it has enough time to set.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Chicken Enchiladas with a Tomatillo-Cilantro Sauce

Mmmm..Mexican food! I could eat Mexican food every day and is one of the main reasons why I love traveling to Mexico. We'll be back in about 5 months, but in the meantime I try to satisfy my cravings by hitting local Mexican places or cooking it myself. Last night I made chicken enchiladas with a tomatillo sauce. I visited the local Mexican market for some authentic ingredients like the corn tortillas from Mexico and the powdered cheese.

Tomatillo Sauce - I found the
recipe for the sauce on It was part of an enchilada casserole recipe, but I only used the recipe for the sauce. I made about half of what is listed below.


  • 2 pounds large tomatillos, husked, rinsed, and halved
  • 1 1/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 10 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 cups sliced green onions
  • 2 cups (packed) very coarsely chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1 large serrano chile, sliced (with seeds)


  • Mix tomatillos, chicken broth, and garlic cloves in a saucepan. Cover and bring to a boil.
  • Reduce heat and simmer gently until tomatillos are soft, about 10 minutes.
  • Transfer hot mixture to a blender/food processor - I used my handheld immersion blender right in the pot.
  • Add green onions, cilantro, and serrano chile and blend mixture to a coarse puree.
  • Season with salt and pepper.

I could have eaten this whole pot of sauce with tortilla chips!

Chicken Enchiladas - once the sauce was made, I made things up as I went along. I usually make enchiladas with a lot of veggies, chicken, a creamy sauce, and red sauce for the top. I changed things up just a bit tonight.

Ingredients (for 8-10 small enchiladas)

  • 3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 each of a red and green pepper, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno, chopped (seeds optional)
  • 3 tbsp cream cheese
  • 1/4 cup chicken broth
  • Spices - cayenne, cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper
  • 1/2 cup shredded Mexican cheese
  • 1/2 cup powdered cheese (found this at the Mexican market)
  • Corn tortillas


  • Heat olive oil in a pan. Coat chicken with the spices - the amount is up to you. Saute the chicken until done, and then either finely chop or shred it.
  • Heat olive oil in another pan. Add red, green, and jalapeno peppers; saute for a few minutes.
  • Add chicken broth, stir.
  • Add cream cheese, stir until creamy.
  • Add just a few pinches each of the shredded and powdered cheeses.

Next, prep the corn tortillas. I haven't had much luck working with corn tortillas in the past, so today I spoke to the owner of the Mexican market for some advice. The key to rolling corn tortillas is to make sure they are moist and warm, otherwise they will crack and fall apart.

One option was to heat vegetable oil in a pan, and then cook the tortilla in the oil for about 30-45 seconds on each side. I did this with one and while the tortilla was very easy to work with, it was just too greasy for me.

The second option was to wet the tortillas, place them between damp paper towels, and heat in the microwave for about 45 seconds. Once removed from the microwave, it is important they be kept warm and moist (under wet paper towels) while you are preparing the other enchiladas. This was the option I chose and while it worked, they were still a bit hard to work with - they became very flimsy and fell apart easily, but they did not crack. At least they held their shape in the oven.

Putting it all together.. Now you have an assembly line of ingredients to make the enchiladas: moist/warm tortillas, cooked chicken, warm pepper/cream mixture, tomatillo sauce, cheeses.

  • Pour a small amount of tomatillo sauce into your baking dish to keep the enchiladas moist and from sticking.
  • Put one tortilla on a cutting board and top with some chicken, creamy pepper mixture, and a small spoonful of the tomatillo sauce. Roll the tortilla and place in the baking dish with the seam down. Repeat, putting the enchiladas very close together in the baking dish in order to help keep them closed.
  • Once all of the enchiladas have been rolled and put into the baking dish, top with more of the cheeses and tomatillo sauce.
  • Bake on 375 for about 25 minutes. I added a bit more sauce halfway through the cooking.

The tortillas came a bit too moist, but were still wonderful. The tomatillo sauce had a serious kick from the serrano pepper, and the chicken mixture was nice and creamy. I can't wait for leftovers tonight!

I gave Jon the task of making the Mexican rice from another recipe I found for Mexican Confetti Rice.


  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil (we used olive oil)
  • 1 1/2 cups long-grain white rice
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 3 cups canned low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1/4 cup tomato sauce
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced peeled carrots (we didn't add the carrots)
  • 1 cup frozen corn kernels
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas
  • ADDITIONS: a few dashes each of chili powder and cayenne pepper.


  • Heat oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat.
  • Add rice and stir 5 minutes.
  • Add onion and garlic and saute until onion is slightly softened, about 5 minutes
  • Addition: add spices
  • Add broth, tomato sauce, and salt; bring to a boil over medium-high heat and boil uncovered until about half of the broth is absorbed, stirring often, about 10 minutes.
  • Mix veggies into rice and cover pot tightly with a lid. Reduce heat to low and cook until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed - about 10 minutes.
  • Remove from heat and let stand covered 10 minutes before serving.

I was happy with the flavor and would make it again. Next time I'd also add finely chopped red pepper for some flavor and color. This rice was much better (and better for you) than the boxed Goya Mexican rice that we have eaten in the past.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Mexican Potato and Corn Soup

Cilantro is something I never liked until about 6-7 years ago. Now I can't get enough of it and love trying recipes that call for it. Tonight's dinner called for a bunch of cilantro so I looked around for some ideas of what to do with the rest. I love having a pot of soup around for the week so I decided on this recipe on The original recipe calls the soup Southwestern, but to me it tasted almost like the broths in different chicken tortilla soups I have had while visiting Mexico.
The original recipe with my changes noted is below:
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 jalapeno, seeded and chopped (I like heat so I used the seeds as well)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 1/2 lb large yellow-fleshed potatoes such as Yukon Gold (about 2)
  • 3 1/4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth (26 fl oz) (I used 32 oz of broth
  • 1 cup water (I used 4 oz of water)
  • 1 (10-oz) package frozen corn (not thawed) (I used about half of this amount)
  • 3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro


  • Heat oil in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat until hot but not smoking, then cook onion, jalapeƱo, salt, and pepper, stirring occasionally, until onion is pale golden, about 8 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, peel potatoes and cut into 1-inch pieces.
  • Add broth, water, and potatoes to onion mixture and cover pot, then bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are very tender, 12 to 14 minutes.
  • Coarsely mash potatoes in pot with a potato masher. (I don't have one so I used my handheld immersion blender and just quickly pulsed it with fine results)
  • Stir in corn and simmer, uncovered, 3 minutes.
  • Stir in lime juice, cilantro, and salt to taste.

OH. MY. GOODNESS!! This is my new favorite soup. I kept tasting it as it was cooking and it kept getting better and better. Finally, the addition of the lime juice and cilantro took me right back to the Love Shack in Cabo San Lucas. Now I know the secret ingredients to tortilla soup and will definitely use this broth as a base when I try to make tortilla soup on my own.

If you love Mexican flavors and don't mind a little kick, try this soup!

Short Ribs in a Dijon-Red Wine Sauce

A couple of weeks ago I made short ribs for the first time and loved them so much that I decided to buy them when I saw that they were on sale again. I decided to try another recipe I found on for braised short ribs with dijon.

I made this on a Wednesday night which was a bit ambitious, but working from home has its perks! The total cooking time from beginning to end is three hours. I was able to start things around 4, but this is definitely more of a weekend meal.

I followed the recipe exactly and was happy with the final result. The meat flaked right off the bones and was full of flavor. The sauce could have used a bit more dijon which I'll be sure to add next time.

I made mashed potatoes and sauteed spinach as sides. I changed up my potato recipe just a bit - I used Yukon Gold potatoes which are very buttery on their own instead of my usual red potatoes which can have a sweet taste. I mixed in some whole milk, just a bit of butter, Kosher salt, and about 2 tbsp cream cheese. The sauce from the ribs was perfect over the potatoes!