Weekly Winner:  Brightening up Beef Ragu – Thai Style

Beef Ragu is generally big, bold, rich, and definitely Italian.  It is usually a slow-cooked sauce of decadent beef loaded onto a pile of perfect pasta. Nothing wrong with that in the least! As a matter of fact it is one of my all time favorites.  Until of course you are cooking dinner for someone who is avoiding gluten.  That is when things get a bit challenging for me.  Until now. Enter Thai Ragu with Rice Vermicelli.

This was a light (no, really!) bright and zesty dinner that definitely had me re-think ragu.  And, it was done in a flash which gave me lots of time to visit with my dinner guest.  This recipe comes from Cuisine at Home Magazine and will probably replace my Thai Beef and Basil recipe that I’ve made a bunch of times, I think this is just an all-around better recipe.

Thai Ragu with Rice Vermicelli

Serves 4

Ingredients:

8 oz dry rice vermicelli

2 Tbsp peanut oil

1 cup diced shallots

2 Tbsp each minced fresh ginger and garlic

1-2 tsp purchased red curry paste

1 lb ground sirloin

3/4 cup low-sodium chicken broth

2 Tbsp fish sauce

1 tsp light brown sugar

1 cup each torn fresh Thai basil and mint leaves

Chopped dry-roasted peanuts for garnish

Procedure:

  1. Prepare vermicelli according to package directions; drain and rinse with cold water
  2. Heat oil in a saute pan over medium.  Add shallots, garlic and ginger; cook until shallots are translucent, 3-4 minutes.  Stir in curry paste and cook for 1-2 minutes.
  3. Add ground sirloin; cook until browned, breaking up clumps with a wooden spoon, about 5 minutes.
  4. Whisk together broth, fish sauce, and brown sugar until brown sugar is dissolved; stir into ground sirloin mixture and bring to a simmer.  Cook ragu until liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
  5. Serve ragu over vermicelli and top servings with basil, mint and peanuts.
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Weekly Winner:  Stuck on Stuffing Stuff — A Lighter Version

 What’s happening to me??  Not too long ago I swore I was not a fan of stuffed veggies.  I said it was not worth the effort and that it detracted from not only what you were stuffing, but generally the stuffing itself.  Then I discovered Sausage-and-Basil Stuffed Tomatoes, then just last month came Chicken Stuffed Bell Peppers, and now this — the ultimate shock – a totally vegetarian version!  Ack!  No pork product or meat of any kind!

That’s just a testament of how delightfully surprising this gem of a dish is.  Couscous-Stuffed Tomatoes rocked my world!  The recipe comes from Fine Cooking.  I honestly was simply testing the recipe for some of my clients who like this kind of thing (read: “vegetarian entrees”) and while I was expecting it to be light and tasty, I absolutely never imagined it would rise to the upper echelon of “Weekly Winner” status.  But, here it is.  And it deserves it.  It is bright and zesty thanks to the lemon and mint and since it is served at room temperature or chilled, it makes a perfect summer meal.  Not that a little crumbled bacon wouldn’t make it just a tad more perfect!

Couscous-Stuffed Tomatoes

Serves 4

Ingredients:

1/4 cup plus 1 Tbs. toasted walnut or olive oil

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 tsp. pure maple syrup

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 oz. (1 cup) Israeli couscous, preferably toasted

4 scallions, finely chopped

2 tsp. finely chopped garlic

4 large tomatoes

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint, plus small leaves for garnish

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Procedure:

In a large bowl, whisk 1/4 cup of the oil with the lemon juice, maple syrup, 1 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper. Set aside.

In a 3-quart pot, bring 1½ cups water to a boil. Cook the couscous in the boiling water according to package directions until the water is absorbed. Toss with the vinaigrette.

In a 10-inch skillet, heat the remaining 1Tbs. oil over medium-high heat. Add the scallions and cook, stirring often, until browned in spots, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 5 to 10 seconds. Combine with the couscous, and then toss with the chopped mint and parsley.

Core the tomatoes, slice a tiny bit off their bottoms to create a level base, cut off their top 1/4 inch, and then seed them with a spoon. Drain the flesh and seeds in a colander, then chop and add to the couscous. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide the mixture among the tomatoes, garnish with the mint leaves, and serve.



Weekly Winner:  Pasta + Pork + Peanuts = Pure Perfection

Here I go again – declaring my ardent and undying love for a good peanut sauce.  Heck, in most cases I’ll settle for an average peanut sauce!  It’s one of those things that I simply cannot ignore –If I see a recipe for it, I’ll tear it out. If I see it on a menu, chances are good I’ll order it – regardless of what it is on or comes with.  But, you combine a good peanut sauce with pasta and a pork product of any variety and I am in…. all in!

I have featured a bunch of variations on this peanut theme here — Dan Dan Noodles, Peanut Soba with Stir-Fried Beef & Broccoli, Grilled Asian Chicken with Peanut Noodles, Hoisin Peanut SauceThai Peanut Curry Noodles with Edamame and Kohlrabi.   This week’s however, just might be the best.  At least its my new current favorite.  Its Rotini with Ground Pork and Spicy Peanut Sauce.  It packs a punch heat wise, but the lime is a nice counterbalance to the heat and well, then you have pork and pasta!  A word of warning; however … this is one of those dishes that you just keep eating, and eating, and eating.  The recipe comes from Fine Cooking and as usual, the only change I made was deleting the cilantro.  Including that would disqualify it immediately from the title of perfection.  Besides, the recipe clearly stated that the cilantro was optional!

Rotini with Ground Pork and Spicy Peanut Sauce

Serves 4

Ingredients:

Kosher salt

12 oz. rotini

1-1/2 Tbs. Asian sesame oil

5 medium scallions, thinly sliced, whites and greens separated

2 Tbs. minced fresh ginger

2 medium cloves garlic, minced

1 lb. ground pork

3 Tbs. soy sauce

2 Tbs. unseasoned rice vinegar

1 Tbs. sambal oelek or other Asian chile paste; more to taste

1 Tbs. granulated sugar

1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter, preferably natural

2/3 cup lower-salt chicken broth

1 medium lime, cut into 4 wedges

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

Procedure:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the rotini and cook according to package directions until al dente.

Meanwhile, heat a 12-inch heavy-duty skillet over medium heat. Add the oil, then the scallion whites. Cook, stirring, until softened, about 1 minute. Add the ginger and garlic and cook, stirring for 30 seconds.
Crumble in the pork and cook, stirring occasionally, until it loses its pink color, about 5 minutes. Stir in the soy sauce, vinegar, sambal oelek, and sugar and cook until bubbling. Add the peanut butter and stir until incorporated. Pour in the broth, stir well, and bring to a simmer. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water, drain the pasta, and return it to the pot. Stir in the pork mixture and scallion greens. Thin the sauce with the pasta water, if necessary. Divide among plates or bowls, squeeze a lime wedge over each serving, and top with cilantro, if using.

Weekly Winner:  Keeping My Cool with Crunchy Cauliflower and Chickpea Salad

Summer was very slow to arrive in Chicago, but once it did, it hit with a vengeance.  It has been brutally hot here this past week.  Hot enough that the idea of cooking anything for lunch, not to mention actually consuming something warm, was inconceivable!  I didn’t even want to boil water to cook pasta for a cold pasta salad.  My solution?  Sliced Cauliflower Salad with Chickpea Dressing.

I’ve had this recipe for quite a while, just floating in my “want to try” pile and this past week I finally got around to it.  I wish I had tried it earlier, just so I’d have had more opportunities to eat it.  It makes a lot, and was so good and unusual that I wound up eating it for two days straight!  For lunch the first day, as a side for dinner that night and then again as a snack the second day.  And I’m still not tired of it!  It’s bright, lemony, crunchy and has just the right amount of creaminess thanks to the puréed chickpeas in the dressing. A word of caution:  whatever you do, do not skip the diced, raw tomatillo on top!  It’s the perfect citrusy bit of crunch.  The recipe comes from Food and Wine Magazine.

Sliced Cauliflower Salad with Chickpea Dressing

Serves 6

Ingredients:

For Chickpea Dressing-

1/4 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed

1 Tbsp seasoned rice vinegar

1 garlic clove, crushed

3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

2 Tbsp tahini

1/2 cup parsley leaves

1/2 cup mint leaves

1 cup canola oil

1/2 tsp sumac

1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

Kosher salt and pepper

For the Salad-

1 medium head cauliflower, cut into large florets and thinly sliced (4cups)

1 small head romaine chopped (about 6 cups)

1/2 cup canned chickpeas, rinsed

1/2 cup parsley leaves

1/2 cup mint leaves

kosher salt

1 medium tomatillo – husked, rinsed and cut into 1/4-inch dice

Procedure:

  1. Make the dressing. In a blender, combine the chickpeas, rice vinegar, garlic, lemon juice, tahini, parsley and mint.  With the machine on, slowly drizzle in the oil and blend until a smooth, thick dressing forms.  Add the sumac and red pepper flakes, season with salt and pepper.
  2. Make the salad. In a large bowl, toss the cauliflower, chickpeas, parsley and mint with the chickpea dressing. Season with salt and toss again. Transfer the salad to a platter and top with the tomatillo and serve.