Tacos Reimagined: Middle Eastern Inspired Ground Beef Tacos

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Tacos are a lunch and dinner staple in our house.  They are easy and tasty, which means you can give everyone a great meal without your kitchen looking like a cyclone has come through. But rather than just sticking to what one might think of as a “traditional” taco, I love coming up with new versions, finding fun ways to combine meat, cheese and vegetables atop a warm, toasty tortilla.

This recipe is the first in what will be an occasional series devoted to the taco.  Yes, that’s how much I love these handheld assemblages of yummy goodness.  There really is no limit to how you can top a tortilla, which also makes the taco a terrific vehicle for helping leftovers disappear from the fridge.  I once made a taco using mashed potatoes and diced chicken wing meat removed from the bone.  I kid you not, and it was delicious!  But I digress.

Today’s taco is inspired by flavors from the middle east, an homage of sorts to many wonderful gyros and kebabs I have had the pleasure of eating over the years.  Enjoy!

Middle Eastern Inspired Ground Beef Tacos

makes 6-8 tacos

ingredients:

one pound ground beef, 80% or 85% lean

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon ground coriander

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

salt and pepper to taste

6 corn tortillas

3-6 ounces sour cream

1 cup shredded lettuce, lightly packed

3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled

1/2 cup thinly sliced pepperoncinis, lightly packed

1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion, lightly packed

directions:

Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Add ground beef, breaking off small pieces by hand and adding to pan.  Cook until browned on one side, about 2 minutes, allowing a few edges to to become crispy.  Mix beef with a spoon, breaking up any larger pieces.  Lower heat to medium and add salt, pepper, garlic, cumin, coriander and cinnamon.  Stirring occasionally, cook for another 3-5 minutes, until beef is no longer pink.  Remove from heat, cover to keep warm.

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Heat a large cast-iron skillet or non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Add tortillas, 2 or 3 at a time.  They should only overlap slightly, if at all.  Allow one side to toast lightly before flipping.  You may need to rotate tortillas around in the pan to ensure even toasting.  Flip tortillas and lower heat to medium-low.  Lightly toast second side.  Keep warm in a clean dishcloth and repeat with remaining tortillas.  Serve immediately.

 

To assemble tacos, place a tortilla on a plate or flat surface.  Spread sour cream over tortilla, leaving the edge of the tortilla dry.  Add shredded lettuce and onion.  Next, add beef, about 2-3 ounces per taco, keeping meat mostly in the center of the tortilla.  Finally, top with pepperoncinis and crumbled feta, to taste.

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The February Garden: Hope and inspiration neatly wrapped in a $2.99 packet of seeds

“Half the interest of a garden is the constant exercise of the imagination.” Mrs. C.W. Earle, Pot-Pourri from a Surrey Garden, 1897

The February garden is a hopeful place.  Dormant and dull, but definitely hopeful.  Long gone are last summer’s bolted lettuce heads, tomatoes laden with blossom end rot, and overgrown spongy zucchini.  Instead, our inner gardens-to-be come to life with images of inspiration from the glossy pages of perfection that is… the seed catalog.

Browsing the vibrant selection of pristine vegetables, where not a blemish is visible nor a leaf out of place, I cannot help but feel empowered and confident about my 2015 garden.  This year will be better, I tell myself assuredly as I form silent mantras…I will keep my beds weed-free, I will pinch off basil blossoms before they render the leaves bitter.  And this year, I will not plant my tomatoes too close together.  Nothing can stop me now.

The images alone are quite powerful, evoking the horticultural super hero in all of us, but the descriptions?  At times borrowing language from the page-turner romance novels of airport gift shops, the copy writers work hard to convince us that we can grow not only healthy and fruitful plants, but down-right sexy vegetables. A few titillating excerpts…

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“Long uniform tubers, yellow flesh with firm waxy texture and a nice nutty flavor” La Ratte, a french fingerling potato.

“Ripens from green to chocolate on the outside and brick red inside, thick sweet flesh.” Sweet Chocolate bell pepper.

“Sweet, aromatic, orange flesh; flavor is complex and deeply satisfying” Noir des Carnes cantelope.

Why, hello.  Where have you been all winter?

 

My final selections, which I ordered with much enthusiasm, arrive sooner than expected, leaving me feeling slightly conflicted this past week.  On one hand, I am one step closer to starting the garden, one small step closer to spring.  On the other hand, seeing the seeds in front of me takes me one step farther away from the catalog fantasy world.  My future garden is in my hands, literally, and the neatly-packaged envelopes of potential are waiting on me to figure out when, where and how to proceed.

Yes, I have done this before, but every year brings with it questions and uncertainty.  But it will all be okay.  It will be okay because one of the first questions asked about this year’s growing season was by my 8-year-old daughter.

“Can I have some of the seeds for my own garden?”

Chicken Piccata

Nicknamed “Chicken Picky-ccata,” as an homage to my pint-sized dinner patrons that evening.

“I want to make something new tonight!” I said to my husband Saturday morning.  It seemed like a great idea at the time.  Of course, with the sunshine beaming in through the kitchen window, and an equally cheery mug of coffee in my hand, I felt ready for anything.

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Paging through some recipes, we quickly landed on one that just felt right that day: Chicken Piccata, a lemony, caper-y Italian dish, originally prepared with veal.   I rounded out the menu with plans for some simple mashed potatoes and steamed green beans.  My grocery list was complete and my mouth was already watering.

Fast forward to that evening.  One thing or another, okay let’s call it ‘life,’ caused me to get behind schedule that afternoon and before I knew it, my side-tracked-slightly-frazzled-slightly tired-6pm-self was attempting to make a recipe for the first time while my three wonderful-but-hungry-and-tired-and-not-feeling-very-adventurous-foodwise-children orbited me like wobbly satellites.  I have often said, usually while watching Chopped, or some similar competitive cooking show, that a real test of culinary focus and epicurian athleticism is completing a meal with a hungry toddler hanging on your leg and said toddler’s older siblings bickering with each other ten feet away using decidedly non-indoor voices.  Forget the pressure of the stop clock, how about staying on track while hearing your name every 18.5 seconds?

Nonetheless, the Chicken Piccata turned out really tasty and I will definitely make it again.  The sauce was nicely balanced, with just enough tang from the lemon and the capers, contrasted with just a touch of creaminess from the butter and broth base.

The younger generation at the table, however, was less enthused.  Bite after slogging bite, they made their way through the meal, failing to recognize all the hungry children of the world despite my repeated reminders.  However, I remain unfazed to the lack luster reception, as I can think of countless “favorite” foods that were once considered the enemy to their existence.  So new foods will continue to come their way, in part because I’m more stubborn than they are, but more importantly to help ensure that they will not be ordering chicken tenders off the children’s menu in their 20s.  Be ready, I tell them, who knows what that next sunny, caffeinated morning will inspire…

Chicken Piccata

Adapted from “Chicken Piccata Done Right,” Cooks’ Illustrated All-Time Best Recipes

serves 4

ingredients:

3 lemons

6 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, trimmed and cut in half

1/2 cup white rice flour

salt and pepper

6 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large clove garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups chicken broth

3 tablespoons capers, rinsed briefly

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

3 tablespoons minced parsley

directions:

Cut a lemon in half, lengthwise.  Slice one of the halves into 1/4 inch thick slices, set aside.  Squeeze juice from remaining lemons into a small bowl.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat.  Add garlic and cook lightly until fragrant, less than a minute.  Stir in broth and increase heat to medium-high.  Simmer until reduced to about a cup.  Add capers and reserved lemon slices.  Reduce heat slightly and continue to simmer for about 5 minutes.  Whisk in butter, one tablespoon at a time.  Reduce heat to low or turn off and cover if sauce is desired thickness.

Pat chicken pieces dry and place them on a plastic cutting board.  Cover pieces with plastic wrap and pound until even, about 1/2 inch thick.  Season both sides with salt and pepper.  Dredge each piece in flour, shake off excess and transfer to a large platter.

Preheat oven to 200 degrees.  Heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet.  Add some of the chicken cutlets, being careful not to overcrowd the skillet.  Cook until golden brown on the first side, turn them over and reduce heat slightly.  Cook until cutlets are no longer pink.  Transfer to a large ovensafe serving dish, tent lightly with aluminum foil and keep warm in oven. Work in batches to cook the remaining cutlets, adding remaining 2 tablespoons oil to skillet when necessary.

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Stir chopped parsley into the sauce and pour over chicken.  Serve immediately.  Enjoy!

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Gluten-Free Banana Bread

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Food Mirrors Nature

My 8-yr-old has been craving banana bread for several days.  It’s not necessarily the most common baked good we have around the house, but I do make it occasionally.  So, having said that, I’m not sure what got it into her mind, but once the idea took root, I heard about it daily until I finally granted her request and whipped up a quick loaf.

After coming out of the oven, the bread sat on the cooling rack during those last few quiet moments before the school bus delivered my daughters home.  During those moments, I am actually able to finish thoughts that begin in my head.  And that’s when I noticed the striking resemblance between the fragrant bread and the landscape out my kitchen window.  The bread’s warm palette of yellows and light browns mirrored the winter neutrals outside: browns and beiges lit by the sun and covered slightly by leftover snow .  After snack was served and the decibel lever continued to rise inside the house, I took the opportunity for a quick jaunt outside, seeking out the colors I had just created in the loaf pan before the golden afternoon light was gone.

Gluten Free Banana Bread

Adapted from a recipe published in Healthy Cooking, December/January 2010

makes 1 loaf

ingredients:

I cup all-purpose gluten-free flour or gluten-free baking mix

4 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

I cup mashed banana (about 2-3 bananas)

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup applesauce

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Add flour, baking soda and salt in a medium mixing bowl.  Whisk gently to combine ingredients.  In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, sugar, bananas, applesauce, oil and vanilla.  Whisk thoroughly.  Add dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, mixing gently until combined, do not over mix.  Fold in chopped walnuts.  Generously butter a loaf pan.  Pour batter in the pan and bake for about 45-55 minutes or a cake tester comes out clean.   Cool slightly before removing from pan.  Enjoy!

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

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The snow predictions continue to change.  5″-9″… 6″-12″… 9″-14″… Question after question: Will school start on time?  What about dismiss early?  Is ballet cancelled? Are we prepared to lose power?  How long is it going to take me to get out of this store? And really, how much bread do people eat in two days?

Eventually things slow down.  Everyone is tucked inside, waiting for the nature of the beast to reveal itself.  Questions still remain.  Shouldn’t it have started by now? Is this all we’re going to get? Guess they got this one wrong.  Well, time to make some soup.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

serves 6-8

ingredients:

1 large, or 2 small, butternut squash

2 tablespoons butter

3 medium carrots, chopped

2 large celery stalks, chopped

2-3 bay leaves

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1/4 teaspoon dried sage

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 cup cooking sherry

4 cups chicken broth

1/2 cup milk

optional soup toppings:

crumbled bacon

diced red bell pepper

chopped herbs: parsley, chives

sour cream

directions:

Begin by roasting the squash.  Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Cut squash into large sections, remove seeds and place, flesh-side down, on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper.  Roast for about one hour, until a knife pierces easily through the flesh.  Remove from oven and let cool.

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In a large pot, melt butter over medium heat.  Add carrots and celery, mixing occasionally until they start to soften, about 3 minutes.  Add dried herbs, nutmeg and bay leaves.  Cook for another 2 minutes or so.  Lower heat slightly.  Scoop out squash flesh with a spoon and add to pot, being careful not to include any skin.  Once all the squash has been added, add sherry and broth and bring to a boil.  Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Puree the soup in batches in a blender.  For this amount of soup, it can usually be done in two batches.  Return soup to a pot and simmer.  Soup should be quite thick.  Add 1/2 cup of milk, mix thoroughly.  Add more milk if you desire a thinner soup.  Soup is ready to serve, or can continue simmer at a very low temperature.

Serve with crumbled bacon, chopped red bell pepper, chopped herbs or sour cream.  Also goes great with some nice crusty bread.  Enjoy!

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Winter winds

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A gust builds, the house creaks, and the heirloom wind chime that hangs out front rings with a violent ferocity, causing me to rethink my plans for stepping out into the night to take out that days’ garbage. The winter wind demands to be noticed. Cold, heavy air whips around corners and blows through bare trees, taking with it anything too weak to stand up to its bullying.

So, what does that mean for us?…Kindling! And lots of it. The returns from a short afternoon walk a few days later are not only a little fresh air and exercise, but handful after handful of small branches. Circling most of our large shade trees, I recognize how immensely gratifying I find this simple act of picking up sticks. It’s true, I don’t get out much.  But maybe it’s more than just a lack of entertainment options during these winter months.  Maybe the enjoyment also derives from participating in a natural cycle of growth, death and energy; collecting what can no longer be sustained by the trees to bring a little light and warmth into our home.

Taking stock of what I have collected, I begin to process the haphazard pile into something more fireplace-ready.  Dry branches easily size down with a satisfying -snap-, and before long, my kindling basket is full.  And as I return to the day’s other tasks, my spirit feels a little more full as well.