Italian Sausage Stuffed Peppers

Most of you know that I’m executive chef for a university in central Alabama. Most people don’t realize that when someone garners years of experience and works for a major contract foodservice organization, as opposed to a private restaurant, the days spent working in the actual kitchen are few and far between. About the only time I get to cook and be creative is for catered functions, or occasional dinners at the university president’s home. I spend 10-12 hours each day putting out fires, like most all of you do, and 90% of my work week involves management instead of cooking.

Lately my creative juices have been non-existent, and I haven’t had a blog post in quite some time. For those of you that follow me, I apologize. I’m working hard to rejuvenate my creativity, and outside of a long trip somewhere the cell phone won’t pick up, I’ve been getting inspirations in many of the same places you do, magazines and blog posts. This recipe is my adaptation of a similar one published recently in Southern Living, the only magazine I’ve maintained a constant subscription to since I was old enough to have a checking account. Like all recipes I try, I use the recipe as a starting point and I add or delete from it based on my likes and knowing my tastes. You too should adopt this practice as long as you understand the basics of cooking, what flavors compliment what items, etc. Not only is this recipe beautiful on a plate, it’s quite tasty and would really impress at a dinner party, but it’s also easy enough to prepare on a week night after work. If you aren’t already a fan of Aldi, I highly recommend them if they are in your area. Aldi has jewel peppers, 3-4 per pack, for what a standard grocery store charges for 1 pepper, so you don’t have to settle for green ones to make this dish (green being the cheapest and least tasty). I’m portioned this recipe for 4 servings with each serving being 1 half of a pepper, so it’s easy to do at 1.5 times or 2 times depending on your crowd size. I hope you give it a shot and enjoy!

  • 2 candy jewel bell peppers (orange, yellow, red) or you may use 2 green if you prefer though they are not as sweet and flavorful
  • 1/2# spicy Italian sausage, removed from casings
  • 1/2 small onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped celery
  • 1 cup quick cook grits (not instant)
  • 3 cups boxed chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup half & half
  • 1 cup+1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 tsp dried Italian seasoning
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 dozen cherry tomatoes, cut in half (I grow a variety of heirloom cherry tomatoes in a variety of colors and if you can find some of those at a Farmer’s Market they really are great, but store bought red or yellow ones work fine)
  • 1 tsp minced garlic (I use the jar but fresh works just fine, not dried or dehydrated though)
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil or 1/2 tsp dried basil leaves

Starting at the bottom of the recipe, combine the cherry tomato halves and remaining ingredients in a bowl and set aside to marinate.

Preheat oven to 350F. Place the peppers in your microwave and cook on high for 2-3 minutes depending on your wattage. You want to soften them slightly. Remove from microwave and slice them in half lengthwise, cutting through the stem so that each half has a half stem attached. Remove any seeds and membranes, set aside.

In a medium saute pan over medium heat, brown the Italian sausage until completely cooked (no pink showing). Remove the sausage from the pan with a slotted spoon or spatula and turn the heat up to medium-high. Add the onion and celery to the sausage oil and cook until tender, 3-4 minutes, shaking pan so contents don’t burn. If your sausage was especially lean (not often the case), you can add a dash of olive oil to the vegetables to saute properly. Add sauteed ingredients to the cooked sausage (including any oil left in your pan) and hold.

In a medium saucepan, bring the stock and half & half to a slow boil. Whisk the grits into the liquid and continue to whisk for 30 seconds to ensure they don’t stick to your pot. Turn the heat down to medium-low or low and partially cover with a lid (tilt one side so it can vent). Cook the grits for 5 minutes, stirring often. Be careful around the grits. They will bubble like lava and are about as hot if any pops out on to you. The lid keeps your stove from being a total mess (those of you with smooth top electric ones especially don’t want to clean cooked on grits off your stove). When the grits are thickened and smooth, remove from the heat. Stir in the 1 cup of shredded cheddar cheese, 2 tsp Italian seasoning and then add the Italian sausage mixture to the grits. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon the grit/sausage mixture into the bell pepper halves and arrange on a baking pan or in a baking dish. Top the peppers with the remaining 1/4 cup of shredded cheese and bake for 25-30 minutes, until peppers are shriveling and tops are golden. Remove from the oven and let stand for 2-3 minutes before serving. After plating each pepper, top each pepper with some of the marinated tomatoes and enjoy!

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Praline Pecan Tartlets

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It’s hard to believe, but I’ve made it over 1 year smoke free. After nearly 30 years of being a smoker, I finally kicked that habit. Those of you that have stopped smoking know this and the smart people out there that never picked up the nasty habit might not, but like others my metabolism went in the toilet when I quit. I ate no more than when I smoked but weight just piled on. I went from my smoking weight of 195 to 225 before I managed to peel off 20 pounds this past summer. Still, the battle of the gut is a constant struggle with me. Working in the food industry, I am surrounded by it 12 hours a day, everywhere I turn! A lead cook will want me to try some sauce (made with butter and whipping cream of course), or my baker will prepare some new treat that I can’t resist tasting, so I’m always interested in bite-sized desserts and treats. These tasty little morsels allow those of us that can quickly consume 1000 calories in a matter of minutes, to enjoy the deliciousness of something decadent and still keep our daily caloric counts in check.

A slice of a common pecan pie like you’d make at Thanksgiving averages about 500 calories (that’s if you slice your pie into 12 servings). If you’ve purchased your pecan pie that number can double, as most thaw-and-serve pies have crusts made with lard.These tasty little phyllo cups have 75 calories each, so you can limit your intake and not feel so guilty. The crispness of the baked phyllo cup with the sweetness of the praline filing and the toasted pecan is just delectable. These are perfect for a party, tea, reception, shower or just to keep in a Rubbermaid container around the holidays. They make great treats for gift giving, especially when pared with some homemade cookies, and they are extremely simple to make. Give them a try and I’m sure you’ll love adding these to your holiday baking repertoire.

For every 15 phyllo cups (available in the frozen pastry section of most any supermarket), you will need:

  • 1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 tbsp+1tsp dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp honey (you can slightly adjust the flavor to your taste depending on the type of honey you use but I personally just get regular amber honey when I make these tartlets)
  • 1/4 tsp pure vanilla extract (sometimes I substitute 1/4 tsp Jack Daniels whiskey in place of the vanilla, especially around Christmas)
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

In a mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except the pecans and mix well. Fold in the chopped pecans. Arrange phyllo cups on a baking sheet, then spoon mixture into the phyllo cups (a heaping teaspoon is a good size to fill the cups). Any extra filling can be evenly distributed between your phyllo cups.

Bake in a 350F preheated oven for 10-15 minutes, until the filling sets, the pecans begin to brown the the phyllo cups brown around the edges. Transfer baked cups to a cooling rack and begin your next batch. Be sure to cool these tartlets completely on a cooling rack. If you cool them on a pan or plate they will become soggy on the bottom and you loose that wonderful crunchiness of the phyllo pastry. Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 7.13.15 AM

Asian Grilled Chicken Thighs

asian thighs

 

Today is a beautiful Sunday! Fall is in the air with high temps in the South running in the upper 60’s and I have stumbled upon newly found energy to do things around the house. Grass has been cut hopefully for the last time, cars washed, clothes are washing, I just finished vacuuming and I’m about to fire up the grill for dinner and make some tasty Asian grilled chicken thighs.

You could use any cut of chicken, but we’ve been buying a lot of boneless, skinless chicken thighs. Not only are they reasonably priced, darker meat seems to have more flavor (along with more fat, but then again, fat IS flavor). The recipe for this dinner is all in the marinade and the longer it marinates, the better the flavor. I’m going to skip cooking instructions because the way you cook chicken is entirely up to you. I’ve roasted chicken this way and it’s been delicious, but today I want to take advantage of the weather, so I’m using the grill.

Soak any chicken you prefer in the following, then simply cook and enjoy! It’s also a great way to make “Teriyaki” wings for a tailgate!

Marinade:

  • 1 cup low sodium soy sauce
  • the juice from 2 Navel oranges
  • Juice from 1 lemon
  • 4 Keffir lime leaves or you can substitute the juice of 2 fresh limes
  • 1/4 cup grated fresh ginger or 1 tbsp ground dried ginger
  • 1/4 cup sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

Combine all ingredients. Add chicken to big Ziploc bag, cover with marinade and put in the frig. The longer it marinates, the better, but at least 1 hour if you can’t let it go overnight.

Discard the marinade and cook the way you’d like!

Crawfish Corn Chowder

crawfish

 

The weather here in Alabama has been unusually cold lately, with temps in the low teens and snow and ice. You may have experienced it, or seen on the national news, how the people in the south can’t deal with the winter weather, because we usually have temps in the 60’s on Christmas day. I’ve also been working a lot lately, especially with catered events, so it was extremely welcoming to come home after a long weekend of catering, on a cold night and find a pot of this delicious chowder cooking on the stove. If you love crawfish you should give this a try. Crawfish tails can be purchased at most supermarkets in the South. Around here, Publix carries them in the freezer section of their seafood department for about $12 a pound. It’s also a little spicy with the poblano pepper, so if you prefer your food a little less “warm” you may want to substitute a jalapeno for the poblano. The recipe has a list of ingredients, but it’s extremely easy to put together.

  • 4 tbsp oil
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 2 cups diced onion, preferably a sweet onion like a Vidalia
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped poblano pepper, seeded and ribs removed
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or sherry
  • 1 quart seafood stock (can be bought at your grocery store)
  • 1-16oz bag of frozen corn, thawed
  • 2 small potatoes, diced into small cubes
  • 1-15oz can of crushed tomatoes
  • 1-8oz can of tomato sauce
  • 1 pound crawfish tails, thawed
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
  • 2 tsp Kosher salt or sea salt
  • 2 tsp Cajun seasoning (a blend sold on the spice aisle)
  • 2 tsp black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

In a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat, add the oil and the butter, letting the butter melt. Add the onion, celery, pepper and garlic and cook for about 10 minutes, until the onions and celery are tender. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Add the wine and stock, whisking to combine. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium and let simmer for 15 minutes.

Add the corn, potatoes, crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, crawfish, bay leaves, thyme, salt, Cajun seasoning and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender. Stir in the cream and cook for an additional 10 minutes. Remove from the heat; discard the bay leaves and add the fresh chopped parsley.

Serve with a good crusty bread and a nice glass of wine. Makes about 10 servings.

 

Bloody Mary Tomato Salad with Pickled Shrimp

bloody-mary-tomato-salad-pickled-shrimp-sl-x

 

The heirloom tomatoes are coming in at Pepper Place and I’m a huge fan. We buy them every chance we can get. Personally, I can eat them like an apple, but this recipe is the perfect marriage of those tomatoes with some fresh Gulf shrimp!

  • 3# assorted tomatoes, sliced (heirlooms are best, such as Cherokee Purple, Beefsteak, Brandywine, etc but any good southern ripe tomato will do)
  • 1/3 cup celery sliced thin on the bias (diagonal)
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed celery leaves (celery leaves are great for seasoning dishes and for garnishes, so don’t automatically toss them like many people do

Using a chilled serving platter, arrange the sliced tomatoes and celery. Sprinkle with cracked black pepper and sea salt to taste. Drizzle with the Bloody Mary Vinaigrette (recipe below) and spoon the pickled shrimp over the top (also below). Top with the celery leaves and garnish with pickled okra or pickled green beans. You can even add some crumbled Feta if you’d like!

For the vinaigrette:

  • 1/2 cup spicy Bloody Mary mix (like Zing Zang)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp prepared horseradish
  • 1 tsp finely ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp hot sauce
  • 3/4 tsp celery salt
  • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce

Combine ingredients in a bottle with a lid, shake and chill.

To make pickled shrimp:

In a zip top freezer bag (gallon size), add 1 pound of medium-sized peeled fresh shrimp. To the bag, add the following ingredients, then place the bag in your refrigerator for at least 2 hours but the longer you leave it in, the better. After 6 hours the shrimp will get rubbery, so 2-6 hours is the processing time.

  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 1/3 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 2 tbsp each chopped fresh dill and flat leaf parsley
  • 1 1/4 tsp Creole seasoning (I use Old Bay)
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced

Creole Coleslaw

creolecoleslaw

I was never a fan of coleslaw growing up, mainly because my grandmother didn’t make it and my Dad thought Captain D’s had good slaw. Sugar and mayonnaise mixed with murdered cabbage never appealed to me. It wasn’t until later in life when I had to cook for others that I grew to appreciate coleslaw, then and after I created my own version.

I have a lot of Louisiana influences in my cooking because part of my family is from New Orleans. Those flavors have always appealed to me and I use them quite often in a lot of dishes I prepare. At work we serve fish on Fridays and most people expect coleslaw with their fish, so I developed this recipe many years ago and it has become a “most requested” from my customers. Now they are begging for the recipe, so here it is.

If you’ve only eaten everyday coleslaw, give this recipe a try. It’s tart, not sweet, with just a hint of spice making it a perfect side dish for fish or BBQ.

  • 1 head of cabbage rough chopped (I prefer it chunky, not shredded like store-bought coleslaw)
  • 1 bell pepper, minced
  • 2 tbsp dill relish
  • 1 large tomato chopped
  • 2 tbsp Creole mustard
  • 1 cup mayonnaise (I use Kraft, if you’re used to eating mine at work)
  • 2 dashes Tabasco or Texas Pete’s hot sauce
  • 1 tbsp Cajun seasoning
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tsp celery seed
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, combine the mayonnaise, mustard, hot sauce, vinegar, sugar, celery seed and cajun seasoning. To the wet ingredients, add the cabbage, bell pepper, tomato and dill relish. Toss well to combine. Refrigerate until ready to enjoy.

Luck & Money Soup

luck_money soup

 

A new year is fast approaching and with every new year I’m reminded of my grandmother requiring us to eat peas (for luck in the new year) and greens (for money). She served her peas and greens as sides to a big country meal. Lately, I’ve been incorporating mine into a one-dish meal so I don’t start the new year off with a dinner loaded with butter, buttermilk, starchy creamed corn, fried pork chops, etc.

So as this day before New Year’s Eve draws to a close, I’m about to drag out my faithful Le Creuset covered dutch oven (mine’s not fancy, I bought it at the thrift store) and soak the peas overnight. If you don’t have time to soak the peas, use the trick I use at work. Bring water to a boil on the stove over high heat. Pour in the peas and boil rapidly for about 10 minutes. Pour through a colander and rinse peas well. Then add back to the pot and proceed with the recipe. This works for any type of dried bean or pea but you may have to cook the dish a little longer than the recipe says to get your peas nice and tender.

  • 2 cups dry black eyed peas, picked and rinsed
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large rib celery minced
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4″ dice
  • 8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 leftover ham bone from Christmas dinner, or 1 smoked ham hock (available in the meat department of any grocery store)
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 bunch collard greens, stems removed and discarded, leaves chopped fine
  • 1/2# ham, diced (I usually use leftover from Christmas if any is still left)
  • 1 tbsp cider vinegar

If time allows, put rinsed peas in a stock pot and cover with water (allow about 2″ above the peas). Cover pot and refrigerate overnight. If you don’t have time, look at my hint above, or you can use canned peas.

In a heavy stock pot or dutch oven, heat canola oil to medium high temperature. Add the onions and saute until tender and translucent, about 4-5 minutes, stirring often. Add the celery, garlic and carrot and saute for 2-3 minutes more, until garlic is fragrant but not browned.

To the vegetables, add the peas, chicken broth, ham bone or hock, thyme, bay leaves, collards and the diced ham. Cook over medium heat, partially covered, for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the peas are tender. Once the peas are tender, remove the ham bone or hock and the bay leaves. Get any meat left on the bone or hock and return it to the pot of soup. With a large spoon, mash some of the peas against the side of the pot (I usually mash about 1/3 of them) and this will develop a creamy texture to your soup and thicken it slightly.

Just prior to serving, stir in the cider vinegar. Serve in bowls with a piece of cornbread. If desired, you can serve over cooked white rice for a more filling meal.

Serves about 8, or plenty for dinner with leftovers for lunch!

Southwestern Style Tuna Salad

Mom agreed to host a neighborhood Christmas party the day before 40+ people are scheduled to arrive at her house on Christmas Eve for our annual family dinner. She called me for suggestions on finger foods; she’s already making my “fancy” chicken salad with apples and dried cranberries and I offered to whip up a batch of jalapeno-pimiento cheese and Southwestern style tuna salad.

We make this tuna salad every day at work, along with regular tuna, regular chicken, fancy chicken and cajun chicken salads. This has turned into one of my customer’s favorites and it’s my favorite way to make tuna salad for sure! Don’t let the name, or the ingredients fool you. This is not a super-spicy salad. The addition of honey and the dairy in the Ranch cuts the heat, so you’ll just have a zesty after taste. Give it a shot the next time you’re looking for something different than a plain old tuna fish sandwich!

tuna

 

  • 2 6oz cans quality tuna packed in water, drained and flaked
  • 2 T pickle relish (we use sweet at work, I use dill at home, so it’s a matter of preference only)
  • 4 pickled banana pepper rings, minced (you can get these in jars on the pickle aisle)
  • 1 small fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (don’t touch yourself after seeding the pepper without first washing your hands!!!)
  • 2 boiled eggs, diced
  • 2 teaspoons honey
  • 1/3 cup + 1 T buttermilk ranch dressing (it’s best to use Hidden Valley made from a packet, but any will do)
  • 1 teaspoon hot sauce (I normally use Texas Pete’s at work and Tabasco at home)
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients together. Taste and season to your liking. If it’s too hot for you, add a little sugar. Chill well before serving. Great on sandwiches, wraps or just to scoop and eat on a bed of lettuce.

White Bean Chili with Swiss Chard

There’s a chill in the air tonight and I wanted a pot of chili. Only problem is, I didn’t have the correct ingredients to make a pot, but I did have an assortment of “other” ingredients on hand so I decided to make a white bean chili. The white beans, known as Cannellini beans, are just white (or rather a creamy beige color) kidney beans, sold in the can by many brands (the ones I bought are Bush’s). Some people make a chili like this with chicken or ground turkey but the chicken I had was frozen and no ground turkey in the house. I did however have some chicken Italian sausage I picked up at Target, so that’s how I’m making it tonight. Here’s the recipe in case you want to give this one a try!

 

  • 1 bunch Swiss chard, leaves removed from stems. Stems chopped like celery and leaves chopped
  • 1/2 yellow onion diced
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 2 cans Cannellini beans (white kidney beans)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 1 tbsp chicken stock base
  • 3 cups water
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 tbsp cumin powder
  • 1 package chicken Italian sausage sliced thin

In a large pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and chard stems and saute until tender, add the chopped chard leaves and cook for 3-4 minutes. Pour in the white wine and cook until the liquid is almost evaporated. Add the minced garlic, beans and tomatoes. Add the water and the chicken stock base (or vegetable stock base, both sold in supermarkets on the bouillon cube aisle), then season with the cumin powder. Add the Italian sausage and cook over low heat for 45 minutes. I usually cover the pot but vent the lid so some of the moisture will evaporate and the chili will thicken.

Salt and pepper to taste.

Corn & Zucchini Salad

Summer is finally here and for us, that means a lot of time spent at the lake where we dine al fresco on the pier with friends. My normal contribution to the meal is a composed salad of some sort, be it pasta salad, potato salad (check out Bacon Parmesan Potato Salad in the blog archives, redneck caviar (Hoppin’ John Salad in the archives) or homemade salsa. I haven’t made corn and zucchini salad in a couple of summers but now that fresh corn is cheap and plentiful, it will be on a future menu at the lake.

This recipe can be made with raw corn, like many corn salad recipes are, but I like the corn a little more tender and a little less starchy. That’s why I blanch the corn. Canned corn is over-cooked, and while it will work if you need a quick salad for a last minute party, it won’t be as fresh tasting. You can also used grilled corn for a smokier flavored salad (perfect with BBQ), and you can change the whole flavor profile from southwestern to Italian simply by using fresh chopped basil instead of fresh chopped cilantro!

  • 5 ears of fresh corn, shucked
  • 2 cups zucchini chopped into a small dice or quartered lengthwise and then sliced thin
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt or Kosher salt
  • 1/2 cup finely diced red onion
  • 2 tbsp cider vinegar
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro (for southwestern style) or chopped basil leaves (for Italian style)
  • 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved lengthwise
  • 1/4 tsp minced garlic (or 1 clove)

Bring a large pot of water to a boil on the stovetop and cook the corn for 3-5 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain and then immerse the corn into ice cold water to stop the cooking process. Once the corn has cooled enough to handle, cut the kernels from the cob into a large bowl.

Add to the corn, the remaining ingredients. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving. The longer it marinates in the refrigerator, the better it will taste, so you can make it an hour before eating, or make it the day before.