Thursday, February 26, 2009

Cheesy Beef & Shells Bake

Yum num yumm......Really can you go wrong with pasta, cheese, tomatoes and beef? Especially when you get the cheese really toasty under the broiler.

The inspiration for this came from the cinnamon in the Pasta al Forno I made recently, and the fact that I had leftover shells from the Venetian Mac & Cheese.


1 pound medium shell pasta
1 pound ground beef
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 can, crushed tomatoes
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 pinches ground cinnamon
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup mozzarella cheese
Italian seasonings

- Brown beef over medium heat for about 10 minutes, add garlic about halfway through with salt and pepper.

- Pour in tomatoes and seasonings (Italian and cinnamon) and let simmer for about 10 minutes.

- Meanwhile, cook the shells to al dente

- Pour in the milk or cream to the sauce and stir, let simmer for about 5 more minutes.

- Pour pasta and sauce into a greased casserole dish and top with cheese. Broil for about 3 - 5 minutes until the cheese gets toasty.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lemon Garlic Shrimp and Risotto with Spring Vegetables

Yum, yum, yum, I LOVE this flavor combination! I found these two (separate) recipes in my William Sanoma Essentials of Italian cookbook when I first got it, and now I make them together and combine into one dish.

Its a great warm weather dish because of the flavors and the fact that you can grill the shrimp for added fantastic flavor, but also great in the dead of winter (made on a grill pan) when you are dreaming of warmer weather!

The recipes are adapted from WS, I have made it so many times I'm sure I am not following it exactly.



Raw shrimp, peeled and deveined - about 12 pieces for 2 ppl
1 lemon
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup of parsley, chopped

- Whisk together the lemon juice, wine, olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper and parsley.

- Add the shrimp and let marinate about 15 minutes.

- Grill the shrimp on a grill pan or directly on the grill


For the risotto, just use a basic risotto recipe, using white wine and chicken broth as your liquids.

For the vegetables, add in whatever fresh spring vegetables you can find. All I had this time were green beans, but I've used peas and asparagus before too.

If using green beans or asparagus, blanch for about 4 minutes and shock in an ice bath while the risotto is cooking. Then add at the last minute, with parsley and parmesan cheese.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cheesy Spinach Stuffed, Bacon-wrapped Chicken

If you've read this blog before, you know that Joe is a fan of anything stuffed with cheese or wrapped in bacon. When I can both of those things into one dish, its a no-brainer - and healthy too. I kid...I kid!

This was inspired by Racheal Rays Florentine Prosciutto wrapped chicken.

I didn't actually use the recipe though, I just remembered seeing it on TV, so I used what I had on hand, which was bacon, spinach and shredded mozeralla.

I just pounded out the chicken breasts, spread the spinach on, sprinkled with the cheese, rolled em up and wrapped them in bacon! Cooked at 350 for about 25 minutes. I turned on the broiler for the last few minutes to crisp up the bacon.

Creamy Mushroom Leek Pasta

Mmm... this was so yummy. I came up with this recipe on my own, I'm sure I've seen the combination somewhere before but I can't remember!

This is a great side dish, but you could also add chicken for a whole meal.

Could be a soup too!


Pasta noodles
3 portabello mushrooms
1 clove garlic, minced
2 leeks
2 tbl spoons olive oil
1/2 cup wine
1/2 cup milk or cream
2 tbl spoons flour
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
parsley (optional garnish)

- Start by cleaning the leeks if you haven't already. Chop them and throw into a large bowl of water. Stir them up with your hands a bit and let soak about 10 minutes, all the dirt will sink to the bottom.

- Begin boiling the water for the pasta

- Heat up the olive oil in a large pan and add the leeks and mushrooms with some salt and pepper, let saute for about 5 minutes and add the garlic, let saute another 5 - 10 minutes until the mushrooms are soft.

- Start cooking the pasta once the water boils

- Add the wine and let cook down.

- Sprinkle in the flour slowly, working into the mixture as you go.

- Then pour the milk or cream in slowly and let thicken up with the flour.

- Let this simmer about 5 minutes and add the cheese. Mix in the drained pasta, garnish with parsley.

Pot Roast - Tyler Florence style

I'll start by saying that I've never been a big fan of pot roast. We had it a lot growing up and its just never been one of my favorites, maybe because I usually gravitate towards fresher tasting foods than dishes that cook all day.

So when Joe requested it the other night (is it just me or do guys like pot roast way more than girls?), I reluctantly agreed and found a Tyler Florence recipe online. I really like his recipes from Tyler's Ultimate for classic dishes.

Well, it turned out really good and Joe loved it. I liked it too, but I think I still feel the same way about pot roast! Just not my favorite thing in the world.

I followed this pretty closely but did let it simmer for about a half hour longer than it said. It actually could have cooked longer so the meat fell apart more. After reading FN reviews (which I should have done before!), other reviewers said the same thing. I'll probably let it go for 5 hours the next time Joe requests it.

I served mine over mashed potatoes.

Poor veggies - about to get the sh*t cooked out of them

Source: Food Network, Tyler Florence.


  • 1 (3 to 4 pound) piece beef chuck roast, trimmed of excess fat
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 yellow onion, halved
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 bunch baby carrots
  • 2 celery stalks, sliced
  • 1 cup button mushrooms, stems removed and sliced in half
  • 2 sprigs fresh rosemary
  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves


Season all sides of the beef with a fair amount of salt and pepper. In a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot that has a tight cover; heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over moderately high heat. Brown the meat on all sides, taking the time to get a nice crust on the outside. Pour in the tomatoes and the water. Scatter the vegetables and herbs around the pot roast, season with salt and pepper; and drizzle with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to low. Braise for about 3 hours, basting every 30 minutes with the pan juices, until the beef is fork tender.

Slice the pot roast and arrange on platter surrounded by the vegetables. Serve with the pot juices.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Venetian Mac 'n' Cheese with Radicchio and Shrimp

Oh my gosh, this was sooo yummy, the picture really does not do it justice. The cheese sauce on this was just delicious, there is a pinch of nutmeg in it and the flavors worked very well with the shrimp.

I got the recipe from Everyday with Rachel Ray. The next time I make it, I will make a few changes though. The shells are cool and all, but kind of a pain to eat, in my opinion. Also, I wasn't a huge fan of the radicchio in this dish. I cooked it even longer than the recipe did to let it wilt more, but it was still kind of tough. Also, the flavor was a bit too bitter for my liking.

So next time, I think I'll use a smaller pasta and maybe use spinach instead of radicchio.

  • Salt
  • 1 pound medium shell pasta
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 1/2 cups half-and-half or whole milk
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • Pepper
  • Pinch Nutmeg
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
  • 3 cloves garlic, grated or finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon anchovy paste (optional) - I did not use this

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it, add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute,then whisk in the half-and-half and chicken broth. Season the sauce with salt, pepper and the nutmeg and simmer, stirring occasionally, until thickened, 6-7 minutes.

In a large skillet, heat the EVOO, 2 turns of the pan, over medium heat. Add the garlic and anchovy paste, if using, and cook for 1 minute. Add the shrimp and radicchio, increase the heat and cook, stirring, until the shrimp is pink and the radicchio is tender, 3-4 minutes.

Pre-heat the broiler. Stir the Parmigiano Reggiano into the white sauce. Add the pasta, shrimp and radicchio and toss. Pour into a buttered casserole and sprinkle the asiago on top. Broil until the cheese is melted, about 3 minutes; serve hot.

Red Velvet Obama Cupcakes what does Obama have to do with Red Velvet cupcakes? Not much, but bear with me, this is not a shameless attempt to attach the Obama name to my cupcakes just to attract attention...maybe.

Okay, so yesterday, Valentine's Day, was also tax day for me and Joe, our first year doing our taxes as newlyweds (exciting stuff). Something about Joe is that he's one of those guys who has "a guy" for everything; realtors, mortgage guys, accountants, contractors, etc. Well for his taxes his "guy" is actually a very nice woman, who works in Hyde Park (our President's previous home), which is in the south side of Chicago.

So at 9 am, yesterday morning, we were headed down to the south side to get our taxes done.
Over time, I've grown to be more skeptical of Joe's "guys". Add the fact that I had to wake up early on Saturday morning and drive to the south side, let's just say I was not a happy camper. We get there and the tax lady is late for our appointment, we're told she'll be there in an hour.

Now I'm even more annoyed - I tell Joe I just want to go home and go the H&R block that is in our neighborhood. He convinces me to wait for her and now we have an hour to kill, and suggests that we find a grocery store to buy the ingredients for my cupcakes. Fine, whatever.

We start driving and immediately realize that getting around is not going to be easy, since Obama was back this weekend - there are police barricades all over the place. Turns out we were just a block away from his house.

Now, I'm just really laying into poor Joe about the whole thing. We get around the barricades and find a grocery store and Joe tries to turn things around by saying "I bet Michelle Obama used to shop here Mel, this was probably their grocery store! Your cupcakes are going to be special Obama cupcakes."

Whatever....he was trying, and I finally came around. The tax lady was fabulous and so were the cupcakes!

I found this recipe on The Way the Cookie Crumbles, Bridget had this amazing red velvet recipe comparison, so I followed her advice and chose the recipe from Apple a Day.

I followed the recipe exactly except:

1) I added a tbl spoon of baking soda instead of a tea spoon - on accident of course. The cakes puffed a bit more but otherwise this didn't have a big effect.

2) Instead of buying cake flour, I substituted with all purpose after doing some research, removed 2 tbl spoons per cup of the flour and added 2 tbl spoons corn starch. I'm not sure I'll do this again, because I could taste corn flavor in the final product.

3) Original recipe, below, is for a whole cake, so it needs less baking time, probably 15 - 20 minutes.

Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (from Apple a Day, who adapted it from

For the cake:
2½ cups cake flour
1½ cups sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1½ cups vegetable oil
1 cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons (1 oz.) red food coloring
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon white distilled vinegar

For the frosting:
12 ounces cream cheese, softened
12 ounces butter, softened
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
1½ cups chopped pecans (optional)

1. For the cake: Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Sift together flour, sugar, baking soda, cocoa, and salt into a medium bowl.

3. Beat eggs, oil, buttermilk, food coloring, vanilla, and vinegar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until well combined. Add dry ingredients and beat until smooth, about 2 minutes.

4. Divide batter evenly between 3 greased and floured 8″ round cake pans.

5. Bake cakes, rotating halfway through, until a toothpick inserted in the center of each cake comes out clean, 25-30 minutes. Let cakes cool 5 minutes, then invert each onto a plate, then invert again onto a cooling rack. Let cakes cool completely.

6. For the frosting: Beat cream cheese, butter, and vanilla together in a large bowl with an electric mixer until combined. Add sugar and beat until frosting is light and fluffy, 5-7 minutes.

4. Put 1 cake layer on a cake plate, level off with a serrated knife, and spread one-quarter of the frosting on top. Set another layer on top, level, and repeat frosting. Set remaining layer on top, level, and frost top and sides with the remaining frosting. Press pecans into the sides of the cake, if desired. **Tip: after leveling cake, turn it upside down to reduce numbers of crumbs. I also did a crumb coat on the outside, let it set for ten minutes, then finished with remaining frosting.

5. Chill for 2 hours to set frosting.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Restaurant Review: Rick's Cafe

So, I decided the other night, while out with some friends, that I would start doing restaurant reviews on my blog. One of my favorite things about living in Chicago is the fact that there are SO MANY amazing restaurants, most of them small, mom & pop owned, ethnic and BYOB (at least the ones I like).

Since my friends and I love trying new restaurants, I figured it would be a great idea to start incorporating reviews into my blog.
So Chicago readers, be on the lookout for more to come. Non-Chicago readers, now you'll know where to go on your next visit!

*please excuse the obnoxious picture. In the future I will try to get pictures of actual food, but had just decided to do this, and already consumed a bottle of wine at this point.

Rick's Cafe
3915 N Sheridan Rd

Joe and I moved about a half a block from here almost a year ago, but had never tried Ricks. There are a lot of great restaurants on this block, Pizza Rustica, TAC Quick and Fornello Trattoria just to name a few, and we overlooked Rick's.

The other night, my friends and I were planning on going out to dinner at one of our favorite BYOBs in Lakeview, Andalous. Andalous has amazing Morrocan cuisine and is one of those places that you can count on for delicous food, decent service and a great value. Well, up until now you could also count on getting seated right away. Not anymore, as we found out when we called ahead and were told there was a 2 hour wait!

So....we sulked for a bit...and then decided we needed to find our next fabulous BYOB that no one else knows about. I thought of Rick's, since I have been meaning to try it, and received recommendations from 2 different people. Online reviews were not consistent, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

IT. WAS. SO. GOOD. Oh my god - you know when you get an insanely delicious dish from a restaurant and its all you can think about the next day? Or is that just me?
Okay - here's how I rate Rick's by category.

Food -
Amazing. Rick's cuisine ranges from French to Morrocan, so the menu has some interesting flavor combinations. I got the Fricassée de poulet ã la crême, a chicken dish cooked in morel juice, and finished with creme fraiche and honey. Soooo delicous. The sweetness of the honey definitely made this dish memorable.

My friends ordered
Penne Primavollo, Pasta with Shrimp and tomatoes, and Artichoke Raviolis. We all tried each others, and everyone's food was fantastic. The penne primavollo was probably my second favorite.

Value - Good, on target for the neighborhood and quality of food. Entrees ranged from $15 - $20. Corkage fees were $2 per person. A lot of people complained about this in the reviews I read, I really don't think its that big of a deal for a BYOB in Lakeview. Some restaurants charge by the bottle, and since the 4 of us usually go through at least 3 bottles when we go out, this worked for us!

Not great, to be honest. I'm not sure if it was the lighting, or the layout of the restaurant, but you definitely feel like you're just sitting in a little room with a bunch of other people, there is nothing to seclude the tables from each other. The restroom requires a trip through the kitchen, but this just always makes me laugh, since a lot of restaurants in Chicago are like this. Usually by that time I've had enough wine to say hi to the chef on my way through!

Service - Not bad, not great. Honestly, I've learned to lower my expectations on service since moving to Chicago. If a restaurant can get the food and value right, I'm a happy camper!

We will definitely be back to Rick's - hopefully this one has a couple more years before it turns into 2 hour waits!

Joe's Stuffed Peppers

While I do the majority of the cooking in our little household, it is not an indication that my cooking abilities are superior, by any means. So once in awhile, when Joe offers to cook, I gladly step back.

One of his specialties are stuffed peppers, and being Italian, it should be! I once tried making a healthier, greek version that included ground lamb, spinach and feta. I thought they were delicious, but Joe was disgusted by them, and therefore, I am never allowed to make stuffed peppers again.

His version is not as healthy, but incredibly tasty!

Ingredients (you'll have to guess at the exact amounts):

2 green peppers
mild italian sausage
2 cups beef broth
1 cup abbrio rice
1 can diced tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup of grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup shredded mozeralla

- Brown sausage

- Add 2 cups of beef broth and 1 cup of risotto. Slow cook for 20 minutes

- Add chopped garlic and 1 can of diced tomatoes

- Simmer and add 1/2 cup of parm

- Wash green peppers and cut a round whole on the top. Gut out all the seeds

- Cut the bottom of the pepper to make sure it stands upright while cooking

- Stuff the pepper and top with cheese

- Cook on 375 for 15 minute of until top is golden brown

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I made Cookies! They turned out normal!

Ahem....this is a pretty big deal for me. Since learning how to cook, I've definitely been one of those "no-bake" type of cooks. I attribute this to my lack of patience and attention to detail, something about exact measurements, remembering to set the butter out and all that mixing just didn't interest me.

So there have been a few factors that have recently encouraged me to give baking a shot.

1) My Kitchen Aid mixer

2) My aunt got me "cookie kit" for one of my showers, complete with this amazing cookie cookbook, Taste of Home Ultimate Cookie Collection. Joe has taken to reading it and dog-earing the pages.

3) My friend Amy is an AMAZING baker and always makes extras for Joe. Unfortunately, she moved back home to Minneapolis recently, so Joe has been deprived of baked goods for a few months.

After a few attempts, these cookies are the first thing I've baked that I was really excited about. Joe actually asked me, "Are you sure you made these?"

Heath Chip Cookies


2/3 cup shortening
1 - 1/4 cups packed brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 - 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
4 oz chopped candy bars (recipe called for Snickers, I used Heath)
1/2 cup quick cooking oats

-Mix shortening and brown sugar until creamed. Beat in egg and vanilla.

- In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinammon and salt. Gradually add to creamed mixture.

- Stir in chopped candy bars and oats

- Drop by spoonful, 2 inches apart onto greased cookie sheet. Bake 350 for 10-12 minutes.

Source: Taste of Home Ultimate Cookie Collection.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Parmesan Crusted Chicken Piccata

I was going through some cooking magazines to find recipe inspiration on Sunday, and came across this recipe from the March 08 issue of Every Day with Rachel Ray
. I know there are some haters out there but as I've said before, I love her recipes for weeknight meals because, of course, they are so quick and easy!

Joe was so excited when he saw the picture in the magazine and realized that is what I was making (he has been known to gnaw on blocks of parmesan cheese). I think mine came out looking just as good as it did and the mag and tasted amazing.

I followed the recipe closely, only omitted capers (because Joe doesn't like them and I couldn't find the green olives I bought to substitute for the life of me!).