Thursday, February 17, 2011

Coconut chocolate pudding

Sorry, Aunt Virginia, you'll just have to wait for the next recipe. This one's only for coconut lovers!

Here's what happened. Valentine's Day fell on a Monday, and I had not yet planned my week's menus. What to do, what to do? I had a bad cold and Little Three was flirting with a fever, so there wasn't going to be any dash out to the store to pick up some special ingredients. So I thought about chocolate pudding. Rich enough for Valentine's Day, comforting enough for a sick day. But all I had was skim milk, and I worried that the pudding wouldn't set well. After reading half a dozen recipes and consulting the pantry, I combined them all and came up with this version. I have to say, I think it was a stroke of genius.  Both the chocolate and the coconut flavors come through, and the crunchy toasted coconut on top is a nice contrast to the creamy pudding. It's very rich, so next time I will serve it in smaller cups.
 (In case you were wondering, I made chicken noodle soup for dinner. Not your standard Valentine's Day dinner, but hey, it made me feel warm inside!)

Coconut Chocolate Pudding

1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/8 tsp. salt
2 T. Dutch process cocoa
1 14-oz. can coconut milk
1 cup milk
6 oz. semi-sweet chocolate (I used chocolate chips)
½ tsp. coconut extract
1/2 cup shredded coconut
Whisk sugar, cornstarch, salt and cocoa together in a large, heavy saucepan.  With the heat at medium-high, slowly pour in the milk and coconut milk, whisking thoroughly until smooth.  Keep stirring frequently until the mixture begins to bubble.  Turn the heat down to low, and keep stirring until the pudding has thickened (this only takes a minute or two).  Stir in the chocolate until melted and smooth.  Turn off the heat and stir in the coconut extract.  Transfer the warm pudding to a serving bowl or individual cups or ramekins.  Cover each with a circle of wax paper right on the surface of the pudding, then cover them all with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until cold and set, at least an hour.

Spread the shredded coconut into a thin layer in a sheet pan and toast in a 375 degree oven for 10-15 minutes, or until golden brown. Keep an eye on it--it goes from toasted to burnt in a matter of seconds! Garnish the pudding with a spoonful of toasted coconut.

Makes about 8 servings (1/2 cup each).

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Aside from the occasional brush with the Swedish variety, I didn't grow up eating meatballs very often. But then I had kids, and eventually discovered that the one way they will all eat meat is in meatball form. Needless to say, meatballs are now a regular feature at our dinner table. I used to buy frozen turkey meatballs, which are certainly fine in a pinch, but they're not as tender as homemade, and they can be expensive. And once I discovered a fuss-free method (no frying, flipping or scrubbing the stove!) for cooking the meatballs (inspired by Cooks' Illustrated), the little investment of time in making them was definitely worth it.

This is not so much a recipe as a method. For each pound of ground meat (beef, pork, veal, turkey, or any combination thereof), add one crumbled piece of sandwich bread soaked in 1/3 cup of milk or cream, and various seasonings. If you have some extra time, finely chop 1/2 an onion and a couple cloves of garlic, and sauté them in a bit of olive oil until soft before adding them to the meat. Otherwise, sprinkle in some garlic powder and onion powder. If you're going to serve your meatballs with marinara sauce, add some Italian seasoning (1 tsp.) and maybe a little fennel seed (1/2 tsp). If you're making a brown gravy, a couple shakes of Worcestershire sauce are nice. For Swedish meatballs, add a pinch of nutmeg or mace, and a little dill.

Mix everything together well (get your hands in there!), and roll into 1 1/2-inch meatballs. You can certainly make bigger ones, but much smaller than that and they dry out. Put a cooling rack on top of a sheet pan (line it with foil for easier clean up) and spray the rack with nonstick spray (or brush it with vegetable oil). Line up the meatballs on the rack and bake in a 400 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until browned. Transfer meatballs to a pot of the sauce of your choice and heat through.

This batch was for Eight's birthday dinner: meatball sub sandwiches. They have a little surprise inside: a cheesy center! I rolled them with 1/2-inch pieces of mozzarella tucked in the center. Three or four sticks of string cheese are perfect for this.

I like this meal for so many reasons. It's hard to find someone who doesn't enjoy it (vegetarian friends excepted, of course). It's great for a party or a busy weeknight or when you're expecting houseguests with an uncertain ETA. Just keep the meatballs simmering in their sauce in a deep pot on the stove, or better yet, the slow cooker. Make a salad, cook up some pasta, or set out a big basket of submarine rolls, and then pour a glass of wine and put your feet up until it's time for dinner. (I realize that's just a fantasy. But you can go scrub the bathroom or crack the homework whip or check your email without worrying about burning the food!)


Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chicken tortilla casserole

As you may have heard, we've been having a little bit of a snow day here in Chicago. It's been a full day's work just to shovel out the driveway (I only took one turn, and I'm not sure when my abdominal muscles will recover). If you're snowbound, too, you might have the ingredients for this 1980's style casserole on hand. Or maybe you can have chicken for dinner tonight and save the leftovers to make this tomorrow. We just got the call that school is canceled again, so it would be good to have another dinner already planned.

I know casseroles are impossibly old-fashioned, un-hip even. But let's just call the casserole "retro," and acknowledge that it has several things going for it: 1) You can make it ahead (freeze it, even!), bake it later; 2) It's a great way to recycle leftover chicken and the three bags of crumbled tortilla chips hiding in the pantry; and 3) The kids might eat it!

I eliminated the condensed cream of chicken soup from the original recipe and instead made a tasty white sauce as the base. The day before, I made a large roast chicken in the slow cooker (Fauxtisserie Chicken), and there were about 4 cups of diced chicken left after I picked the meat off the carcass. I put all the bones back into the slow cooker, covered it with water, and cooked it on high for 4 hours. (Usually I put it on low for 8 hours overnight.) Anyway, by the next day I had lots of chicken and chicken broth to use for this meal, and more for the freezer. I like to stretch my $4 chicken as far as possible.

I made our casserole very mild (the salsa said "medium," but it seemed mild even to me), but you could add some jalapeños or hot sauce if you like things spicy.

Chicken Tortilla Casserole

2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
4 cups chicken broth
3 Tbsp. flour
1 cup milk (skim works just fine)
2 cups diced cooked chicken
3/4 cup green salsa
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese (I used a 4-cheese Mexican blend, but cheddar or Jack are fine)
3/4 bag of tortilla chips

Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large sauce pan and add the chopped onion. When the onion starts to look soft and translucent, add the garlic. Stir for a minute, and then stir in the flour.  Cook for another minute, and then whisk in 2 cups of chicken broth and 1 cup of milk. Raise the heat to medium high and cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce begins to bubble and thicken. Add salt and pepper to taste. Turn the heat off and stir in the salsa and diced chicken.

In a large baking dish (9"x13" or something similar), put a layer of slightly crushed tortilla chips. Drizzle about 1/2 cup of broth over the chips.  Spread 1/3 of the chicken and sauce mixture over the chips.  Sprinkle 1/2 cup shredded cheese on top.  Repeat these layers twice more, ending with a final layer of cheese.  Cover the baking dish tightly with foil. Refrigerate or freeze if you're assembling the casserole ahead of time.

Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour (perhaps longer if you've refrigerated the casserole).  Keep the foil on for the first 45 minutes, and then remove it and bake until the cheese bubbles and the edges begin to brown.

Serve with rice (I made brown rice), and some extra salsa or sour cream if you like. The kids ate a little rice, but mostly scooped up the casserole with more tortilla chips, as if it were a hot dip. They were eating and not complaining, so I kept quiet and ate my dinner in peace.