Fajita Chicken w/ Zucchini Noodles

Despite having a fairly short history, Mexican fajitas are one of the most popular dishes in the world today. Apart from the fact that fajitas are incredibly tasty, they are actually very healthy not to mention the ease in cooking and assembling them.

As with many foods, time has changed the contents of the fajita and has evolved slightly from the original simplicity of the ranch worker’s dish, with different cuts of meat being chosen such as chicken or seafood. The vegetables have not changed as much as the meat, with peppers, onions & chilies still being predominant ingredients in the dish.

Probably, the most important thing when making fajitas is the marinade. It not only makes the ingredients incredibly tender but very flavorful.

Fajitas usually require some tortillas. While they are wonderful tasting, using zucchini noodles (or zoodles) as a base for the fajita chicken gives this meal an amazing flavor. Zucchini is perhaps the most popular choice for vegetable noodles. It’s long, thin shape makes it easy to spiralize and its neutral flavor allows it to pair well with almost any sauce or topping. This meal has such eye appeal along with a great taste.

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Fajita Chicken w/ Zucchini Noodles
Instructions
  1. In a large resealable plastic bag, combine oil, lemon juice & seasonings (RESERVE a small bit of seasoning for zucchini noodles); add chicken, seal & turn to coat. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
  2. Wash zucchini & trim off ends. Using a spiralizer, cut zucchini into 'noodles'. Set aside. Prepare peppers & green onion.
  3. When chicken has finished marinating, Add 1 Tbsp oil to a griddle & saute peppers & onion until just tender crisp. set aside & keep warm. Add another Tbsp oil to griddle. Saute zucchini noodles for 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat, sprinkle with reserved seasoning & keep warm.
  4. Grill marinated chicken strips until cooked through. Divide zucchini between serving plates. Top with peppers, onions & grilled chicken. Sprinkle with grated cheese.

Baked Potato Skins

With the last day of December right around the corner, its time to focus on New Year’s Eve celebrations. Even if you don’t have big party plans, you will no doubt still want to enjoy a few finger foods to ring in the new year with. The fact that so much emphasis is placed on sweets over Christmas, now is a good time to enjoy something savory.

During the many years I worked in the commercial food service industry, new years eve was all about finger food. I remember making hundreds of these little bite size morsels. The thing about this type of food is, it takes hours of prep work but they can be devoured in a very short space of time.

Although the humble potato skin appetizer is pretty basic, its easy to make and quite tasty. Originally served as a clever way to repurpose food scraps, potato skins have been around since the 1970’s.

Today’s recipe works well in that you can prepare them the day before needed and refrigerate. Half an hour before you are ready to serve …. bake, sprinkle with toppings and bring on the new year!

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Baked Potato Skins
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Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Pierce potatoes 2-3 times. Bake directly on middle rack of oven for 50-60 minutes until tender.
  2. When cool enough to handle, cut potatoes in quarters lengthwise. With a spoon, scoop pulp from skins, leaving 1/4-inch thick shells. Place skin side down on ungreased baking sheets. Brush with oil; sprinkle with Parmesan, garlic salt & chili powder. The potatoes can be prepared up to this point one day ahead. Nest skins in rigid plastic containers, cover & refrigerate.
  3. To serve: Heat oven to 450 F. Bake skins 15-20 minutes or until hot & edges are crisp. Remove from oven; sprinkle with bacon, green onions & cheese. Bake another 5 minutes or until cheese melts. Serve with sour cream or Ranch dressing.

Chili Mostaccioli

Mostaccioli, known in Italy as ‘penne lisce’, are a specialty of the Campania Region in Southern Italy, which includes the cities of Naples, Capri and Sorrento. This pasta is smooth in texture, tube-shaped with angled ends cut to resemble a quill or pen point.

Without realizing it, the pasta shape we choose plays an important role in the outcome of the dish. Long or short, smooth or ridged, thick or thin, with or without curves and crevices, different shapes of pasta capture sauce differently.

Shaped pastas pair well with sauces that have some texture. The crevices and twists will give pieces of meat and veggies a place to nestle into.

Short tubular pastas are great for sauces that are thick and chunky.

Long, thin, dried pasta need lots of lubrication. Olive-oil based sauces will coat, but not drown the pasta. The thicker pasta, like fettuccine can stand up to cream sauces and ragus. If your adding vegetables or herbs, cut them string-like rather than in cubes for ease in blending them.

This is a quick, low-cost meal but has good flavor.

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Chili Mostaccioli
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Course Main Dish
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Course Main Dish
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Instructions
  1. In a bowl, combine meat, milk, crumbs, garlic, onion & seasonings; shape into 4-5 oblong patties. In a skillet, brown patties in hot oil. Remove to drain on paper towel.
  2. Drain any liquid from skillet & wipe with paper towel. In the skillet, combine soup with water & bring to a simmer. Add meat patties; gently simmer, covered for about 10 minutes then add drained & rinsed kidney beans. Simmer 5 more minutes until beans are hot.
  3. Cook pasta according to package directions; drain. Place on a large warm serving platter. Arrange patties over mostaccioli pasta. Pour sauce over meat & pasta; sprinkle with Parmesan cheese & serve.

Rice Flour Crepes with Black Beans & Guacamole

Due to the fact that rice flour pairs perfectly with taco-worthy fillings such as avocado, beans, cheese etc. gave me inspiration for this meal. This flour is a staple of South east Asia, Japan & India. Rice flour or rice powder is very different from rice starch, which is produced by steeping rice in a strong alkaline solution.

The technique of frying with rice flour has become universal. Rice absorbs less oil than other flours while frying, resulting in fewer calories from fat and a less oily product. Even many fast food restaurants dust their french fries with rice flour to give them that characteristic, satisfying crunch. By blending traditional wheat or cornstarch batters with rice flour will lighten the batter up and reduces some of the ‘gumminess’.

Rice flour is well suited to crepes but it is important to make them in thin, crisp rounds. If they are too thick the most likely they will crack if you are wrapping filling inside.

The recipe I’m using for my crepe stacks is pretty much a basic crepe recipe with rice flour substituted for all purpose flour. For the classic Asian rice ‘crepe’, coconut milk and turmeric are generally used.

This combination of flavors was very interesting. The recipe seems kind of long but it comes together fairly quickly. It certainly will be a ‘keeper’ for us.

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Rice Flour Crepes with Black Beans & Guacamole
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Course Main Dish
Cuisine American, Asia, Mexican
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Course Main Dish
Cuisine American, Asia, Mexican
Servings
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Instructions
Rice Flour Crepes
  1. In a pitcher, whisk all ingredients together until smooth. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes while preparing the rest of the recipe.
Crepe Filling
  1. In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add turkey; stir-fry until no longer pink. Stir in water chestnuts, carrot, cilantro, garlic, apricot preserve, soy sauce, ginger & red pepper flakes. Remove from heat & set aside.
Guacamole
  1. In a bowl, coarsely mash avocados, lime juice, salt, garlic, onion & cilantro with a fork. Cover & refrigerate until ready to use.
Black Beans
  1. In a bowl, combine all ingredients except chicken broth (or water). In a food processor, pulse 1/2 cup of the mixture with broth until smooth. Add to mixture in bowl & stir to combine well.
  2. Heat griddle to a medium-high temperature. Using a 1/4 measure, pour batter on griddle. With bottom of 1/4 cup measure, enlarge crepe by making circular motion in the batter. Cook each crepe for about 2 minutes until bottom is lightly browned. Lay on a plate until ready to use making sure not to let them dry out.
Assembly
  1. On each serving plate lay one crepe. Spread each with some of the guacamole, top each with some of the turkey filling, black beans, diced fresh tomato & a sprinkle of smoked Gouda cheese. Repeat with 2 more layers on each plate. End with a swirl of guacamole for some eye appeal. Serve extra beans on the side if you wish.

Tortilla Crepe Stacks

To some of us, Mexican food terms get a little confusing. I mean there is the taco, burrito, quesadilla, enchilada and taquito just to name a few. Before anything, one needs to know what a tortilla is. Simply put, it is wheat or corn plain bread that is used as a wrapping material around different types of filling ingredients to make the various Mexican dishes. 

Masa Harina is a traditional flour used to make corn tortillas and tamales as well as other Mexican meals. To make masa harina, field corn (or maize) is dried and then treated in a solution of lime and water called slaked lime (or wood-ash lye). This loosens the hulls from the kernels and softens the corn. In addition, the lime reacts with the corn so that the nutrient niacin can be assimilated by the digestive tract.

The soaked maize is then washed, and the wet corn is ground into a dough called masa. It is this fresh masa, when dried and powdered, that becomes masa harina. Water is added again to make dough for the corn tortillas or tamales.

Cornmeal and masa harina are very different preparations of corn. Do not try to substitute cornmeal or regular wheat flour in recipes calling for masa harina as they will not produce the same results.

Today, I want to make some tortilla crepe stacks. Crepes as we all know, have always been a hallmark of French cuisine. So the question is, ‘how did they come to be in Mexican cuisine’? In the 1860’s, French forces invaded Mexico. They came, they conquered, they cooked and then they got kicked out. Cinco de Mayo commemorates that victory for Mexico from 1862. However, it took another five years before the French left Mexico for good. During their stay, the French left their mark on the country’s cuisine.

One of the reasons I have always loved crepes, is that they are so easy to make and taste so good. You can either roll the filling inside or just stack them with their fillings and make a ‘cake’.

These tortilla crepes are made with half masa harina and half white flour. Next, I made a mushroom rice & barley pilaf and some guacamole. You can pick and choose when it comes to the extra filling add-ons. I guess it did get a bit more involved but worth it —.


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Tortilla Crepe Stacks

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Instructions
Tortilla Crepes
  1. In a blender, beat eggs with milk & oil. Gradually add masa harina, white flour & salt, beat until smooth. Allow to stand for 1 hour or longer. Heat an electric griddle to 350 F. Using a 1/4 cup measure, scoop batter onto griddle. With bottom of 1/4 cup, make circles in the batter, gradually enlarge to size of tortilla you wish to make. I made 3 for each crepe stack. Cook each crepe for a few minutes on each side then remove to a wire cooling rack.

Rice & Barley Pilaf
  1. In a saucepan, saute onion, garlic & mushrooms until tender crisp. Add chicken broth & bring to a boil. Add all remaining pilaf ingredients & reduce heat to simmer. Simmer until barley & rice are cooked & liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; place in a dish & set aside to cool.

Guacamole
  1. Mince onion & sun-dried tomatoes & mash avocados. In a small bowl, combine avocados, onion, sun-dried tomatoes, & remaining guacamole ingredients. Blend well, cover & refrigerate.

Crepe Stack Fillings
  1. Cook chicken & shred, Grate cheese & prepare all filling ingredients.

Assembly
  1. Spread 4 tortillas with guacamole, reserving a bit for 'decorating' the top of each stack. Over the guacamole, put a layer of rice/barley pilaf. Top each of them with chicken, green peppers, olives, corn, red onion, fresh tomatoes, zucchini, black beans & a sprinkling of cheese. On 2 serving plates, place one filled tortilla topped by a second one. Complete each stack with another corn tortilla. 'Decorate' each with remaining guacamole, salsa, sour cream & remaining cheese. Heat each crepe stack for a few minutes in the microwave before serving.

Fish Tacos with Guacamole

The countryside around Merida, Mexico is home to many plantations or haciendas.They grew a cactus of the Agave family and processed the leaves to remove the fibers inside to make what is called a ‘sisal’ rope and other  related cordage products. Although most haciendas laid abandoned for  many years after the Mexican Revolution and the invention of synthetic  fibers, today many have been restored and turned into luxury hotels,  restaurants, museums and attractions.

On one of our day trips we went to Hacienda Sotuta de Peon. This is a  restoration project focused on preserving the history of how a native plant was farmed for its fibers and made into rope. You can witness the whole process step by step; from plant in the ground, to raw material, to fibre and finished product.

This tour of the plantation was very interesting!  The ‘grand hacienda’, or landowner’s home, was one, very long building. The rooms from kitchen through the bedrooms were all in a row connected by doors. The veranda ran the length of the house  overlooking the pool and beautiful gardens. Sheer opulence in comparison to the conditions of the factory workers a short distance away. Over in the factory, the sisal leaves are lifted up from the street onto a conveyor belt  where it is arranged by hand for maximum efficiency. Equipment,  powered by a loud diesel engine, with overhead drive shafts and big  leather belts, squeezed the leaves. Rivers of green pulp and liquid ran  down to the carts below. The cleaned leaves came out the other side and  workers made individual batches of the fibre and sent them down a rail to the room below where they would be hung out to dry in the  sun.

In the next process, machinery separated short and long fibers, spun it  into grade rope or baled it. When nylon and other synthetic materials  were created it changed the economics of this industry. No longer able to  compete they ultimately had to shut down. At the end of this part of the  tour we were taken on a mule drawn, covered cart to see the fields of the  sisal growing. What was interesting about the ride was that the mule  pulled all of us around the plantation in this cart attached to the same rail  system  that was used over a century ago to transport the workers.

I’m including some of the highlights of Brion’s photos of that day for you  to enjoy. In keeping with the Mexican theme, here is a tasty little recipe  for some fish tacos as well.

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Fish Tacos with Guacamole
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Course Lunch, Main Dish
Cuisine American, Mexican
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Instructions
Fish
  1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Place a metal rack over a baking sheet & spray the rack with vegetable spray. Set aside. In a shallow bowl, whisk together the cornmeal, flour, cumin, chili powder, salt & pepper. Set aside. Cut fish fillets into fingers & brush with olive oil. Toss the fish fingers a few at a time into the flour mixture until well coated. Transfer fish to baking rack. Spray the top of fish lightly with vegetable spray. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden & cooked.
Guacamole
  1. In a large bowl, coarsely mash avocados, lime juice, salt & cumin using a fork; stir in tomato, garlic, onion & cilantro. Cover & refrigerate until ready to assemble tacos.
Coleslaw
  1. In a bowl, combine coleslaw with ranch dressing.
Assembly
  1. In each (heated) tortilla, place a small amount of coleslaw. Top with a couple of fish fingers, guacamole, red onion, diced tomato, grated cheese & the remainder of coleslaw. Serve any extra guacamole on the side. Of course, nothing wrong with adding a bit of salsa to the equation!

Salmon with Roasted Figs & Braised Fennel

Figs, another symbol of Autumn, begin to ripen in late summer. Native to European and Middle Eastern regions but today are widely available around the world. This tear-drop shaped fruit is singular in appearance and flavor. From their characteristic perfumed fragrance to their fragile skin, that is often slit from ripeness, revealing drops of honeyed nectar.

I love the sweet earthiness of figs with all their little seeds, whether they are fresh or dried. Any recipe that calls for peaches, pears, prunes or dates can be substituted successfully with figs. Pairing them with the aromatic anise flavor of fennel is a great compliment to salmon as well as other entrees or baking.

Fennel has been a favorite of Italians for many years due to its mild sweet anise flavor. All parts of the fennel plant, including the bulb, stalk, leaves and seeds are edible.

This recipe is simple but has a wonderful flavor. We enjoyed it served over Jasmine rice.


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Salmon with Roasted Figs & Braised Fennel

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Instructions
Fennel
  1. Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut outer leaves of fennel off & discard. Remove stalks, reserving a few fronds for garnish if you wish. Cut the fennel into quarters leaving root in tact. Place a large oven-proof pan over medium-high heat. Add olive oil & allow to heat. Place fennel into the pan ; cook & sear to a golden brown, about 3-4 minutes. Season with salt & pepper & add the chicken broth. Place in preheated oven & roast for about 10 minutes or until slightly soft but still holding quite a bit of firmness in center.

  2. In a small saucepan, combine honey, vinegar & chili powder. Heat & simmer for 3 minutes. Quarter figs & place them on a baking sheet. Drizzle figs with the honey mixture. Place in the oven & roast for 4 minutes or until warm, bubbly & caramelized but still holding their shape.

Salmon
  1. Season salmon fillets with salt & pepper. In a large non-stick skillet, add vegetable oil & heat. Place salmon in skillet & fry on each side until flesh is opaque & translucent in the center. Do not overcook. Serve immediately with the roasted caramelized figs.

Turkey Taco Stuffed Avocados

Using creamy avocados instead of tortilla shells puts a healthy twist on tacos.      Most people think guacamole when they hear the word ‘avocado’. True, guacamole is great but that’s just a mere beginning of their potential. Avocados can stand in for mayo, replace butter in baked goods and even become a creamy base for ice cream or smoothies. Beyond that, you can grill, stuff, batter and fry them or turn them into cake frosting. For many people, avocados make everything they just a bit better.

Avocados are a fruit that ripen off the tree so they are often sold unripe. The tree carries two crops on them at a time, and on average an avocado will stay on the tree for 12-14 months.

This versatile fruit is a true Mexican staple, bringing flair to practically any dish its used in.  If you enjoy tacos and avocados, this is just a great, easy lunch or light supper.

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Turkey Taco Stuffed Avocados
Instructions
  1. In a large skillet, stir-fry ground turkey & onion until turkey is no longer pink. Stir in spices & add refried beans; combine well.
  2. Top each avocado half with a squeeze of lime juice. Divide turkey mixture evenly into each halved avocado. Top with shredded cheese, salsa, sour cream & cilantro (if using).
Recipe Notes

Mango Chutney Country Style Ribs

If you are not accustomed to using chutneys it is well worth revisiting the idea. Chutney is similar to salsa or a sweet ‘relish’. The perfect balance of sweet, sour and spicy are critical elements for most chutneys. The sweetness coming from fresh or dried fruits, the sour element from vinegar, lemon or lime and the spiciness from a variety of whole spices. 

There is no right or wrong recipe, just a preferred flavor or two. They can be cooked or fresh and are made from a wide variety of ingredient combinations of fruits and/ or vegetables and spices. Ground spices tend to make chutney cloudy so it is best to use whole ones.

In the majority of chutney recipes one ingredient tends to dominate the flavor. The sweet and sour ones work well with beef, pork and chicken, whereas sweeter versions are great on cheese and crackers, bagels and toast.

I have made numerous chutneys over the years. Some were served with warm Brie cheese but very often I’ve used mango chutney when cooking pork. This particular recipe can be made with either purchased chutney or just make a recipe of your own. It creates a unique flavor along with nice tender ribs.

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Mango Chutney Country Style Ribs
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Instructions
Mango Chutney
  1. In a saucepan, combine honey & vinegar, Bring to a boil & simmer until honey dissolves. Add remaining ingredients & simmer, uncovered until mixture becomes slightly thickened. Pour into a glass dish & set aside until needed. Refrigerate any remaining chutney that you don't use in making ribs.
Ribs / Sauce
  1. In a saucepan, Brown ribs & set aside on a paper towel-lined plate. Add all 'sauce' ingredients to saucepan except for the 1 fresh mango. Bring to a boil, cooking for about 15 minutes, gently mashing tomatoes with a fork, until sauce is reduced to about 1 1/4 cups.
  2. Preheat oven to 300 F. Place ribs in a baking dish; pour sauce over ribs, cover & bake for about 1-1 1/2 hours until ribs are very tender. Serve with sauce & top with remaining diced fresh mango.

Apricot-Spice Meatball Hors d’ Oeuvres

The humble meatball is one of the most versatile foods. They seem to exist in just about every culture and can be used in any number of ways, not only with pasta and rice but as a tasty little hors d’ oeuvres. 

I find apricots to be a good compliment to meatball hors d’ oeuvres. Using  Mediterranean (also known as Turkish) apricots is a good choice as their flesh is thicker and plumper as well as having great flavor.

Many people prefer to fry meatballs but it seems to me that usually ends up with a charred outside and they are still raw inside. Baking them in the oven will result in a much more even cooking. Personal choice I guess.

This recipe for  APRICOT-SPICE MEATBALLS  is one I’ve used many times over the years.    They work well at Christmas events when hot                      hors d’ oeuvres are in demand. Make the meatballs up, bake and freeze ahead of time — thaw when needed!  At serving time, make the spicy apricot nectar sauce and your ready to go.

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Apricot-Spice Meatball Hors d' Oeuvres
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Ingredients
Spiced Apricot Sauce
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Ingredients
Spiced Apricot Sauce
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Instructions
Meatballs
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a 15 x 10 x 1-inch baking pan with foil; lightly grease. Set aside.
  2. In a bowl, combine bread crumbs & milk. Let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in egg white, onion, apricots, salt, garlic & chili powder. Add ground pork & turkey; mix well. Shape meat mixture into 30 meatballs. Place on prepared baking pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until meatballs are cooked. Remove meatballs from pan to paper towels.
Spiced Apricot Sauce
  1. In a small saucepan, combine sauce ingredients. Cook & stir over medium heat until thickened & bubbly.
  2. Place meatballs in a slow cooker. Add sauce, stirring gently to coat. Turn heat setting to low. This should keep meatballs warm, while being used by guests for about 2 hours.
Recipe Notes
  • If you find your sauce gets to thick or you prefer it thinner to begin with, just use a little more apricot nectar.
  • This meat combination makes a real flavorful meatball.